What is Robotic Process Automation?
For many businesses, so much time gets spent on repetitive, mind-numbing tasks that employees find themselves unable to focus on the most value-adding parts of their job — the ones you actually hired them for. Report generation, data entry, email responses, and countless other mundane business processes bog down your workers, reducing their efficiency and wasting their more advanced skills and their ability to drive your company’s growth. There has to be a better way to free up your staff for the more complex tasks without leaving the basic ones undone.
There is, and it’s called robotic process automation (RPA).
An upgrade from prior versions of business process management (BPM) software, RPA technology uses its software to eliminate repetitive tasks so your company can get more done. It bears some key differences from artificial intelligence (AI) but relies on similar concepts to remove basic tasks from your employees’ workflow. The results range from significant cost savings and greater employee morale to higher productivity and better compliance. The ultimate outcome leads to higher profitability.
While some challenges with scalability and implementation do exist, the benefits that robotic process automation tools offer are too great to ignore. We’ve created this comprehensive RPA guide to give you an overview of the ins and outs of the technology, including how it works and what it brings to the table. We’ll also show you a few of the industries that stand the most to gain from its implementation and how you can integrate it in your context today.
Introduction to Robotic Process Automation (RPA)
So, what is robotic process automation? The technology doesn’t pertain to mechanical robots but to software applications called robots operating within digital systems. Inasmuch as they complete the repetitive, menial tasks that humans dread — often with greater accuracy, speed, and consistency, without the time off or requests for pay raises — these software robots are similar to their mechanical counterparts, but they differ both in the tasks they perform and how they perform them.
The exact definition of robotic process automation technology may vary depending on which expert you’re talking to, but they’ll all agree that it contains the following components:
- The use of software robots to automatically complete high-volume repetitive tasks within the workplace.
- Implementing machine learning (ML), natural language processing (NLP), and computer vision (CV) to complete these tasks.
- A series of rules or triggers to initiate the action that the robot is to take.
Taken together, a good working definition of robotic process automation is:
The use of software robots that employ machine learning, natural language processing, computer vision, or other technologies to complete high-volume, repetitive tasks based on a given set of rules or triggers, eliminating manual processes.
Importance of RPA
If that definition is still hazy, the following robotic process automation example shows the importance of the technology.
Suppose a company builds a successful software product. Eventually, they build enough demand that their sales team gets bogged down with all the updates they have to enter into their customer relationship management (CRM) software. Someone within the department must enter all sales data into their system and transfer it into a different repository for financing and accounting to handle — and each time they make an error, IT must then step in.
As the company matures, its business processes become increasingly tedious, with basic tasks consuming so much time that personnel can no longer carry the weight of their company’s inertia. Robotic process automation software helps solve these problems by automatically completing the time-consuming tasks that weigh your personnel down. Some examples are:
- Using natural language processing to read emails and understand their content to respond to consumer requests.
- Using computer vision to identify updated data and then copying and pasting it to a different spreadsheet.
- Implementing a chatbot to handle incoming calls faster for better customer service.
Evolution of RPA
RPA software has already improved greatly over the years, with advancements in computer vision, machine learning, and natural language processing enabling robots to perform tasks with greater accuracy. The next step is to integrate artificial intelligence to help software robots do even more.
For example, traditional automation software may only be able to recognize structured datasets that have been properly cleaned for use. As artificial intelligence becomes more common (and we’ll discuss the connection between the two later), RPA tools may be able to view and act upon unstructured datasets, performing more in-depth procedures on them, such as identifying outliers and unsuitable data points.
How Does Robotic Process Automation Work
Robotic process automation tools are highly versatile and require little to no back-end integration work to make them play well with the other tools in your stack. Here’s how they operate.
Elements of RPA
For as advanced as their functionalities are, a robotic process automation platform has relatively few components.
The primary ones are:
- Low-code capabilities to build automation scripts that require minimal programming.
- The ability to integrate into the rest of your company’s applications
- Orchestration and administration features to assist with configuration, security, compliance and monitoring.
Another distinguishing feature of RPA tools is their ability to integrate with legacy systems. Their back-end integration allows them to transmit data across internal systems, but their front-end integration lets them perform manual tasks such as logging in, copying and pasting for data entry, or responding to emails. An RPA tool’s easy front-end integration capability is what powers its ability to drive value. Another distinguishing feature of RPA tools is their ability to integrate with legacy systems. Their back-end integration allows them to transmit data across internal systems, but their front-end integration lets them perform manual tasks such as logging in, copying and pasting for data entry, or responding to emails. An RPA tool’s easy front-end integration capability is what powers its ability to drive value.
Bots and Automation Scripts
The software bots that RPA tools employ are created from automation scripts that instruct them to perform specific commands. These automation scripts should contain at least three things:
- A launch point to establish context for when the robot should act, like when a certain event, such as a sale, occurs. (This is why RPA tools depend upon a specific set of rules or triggers to execute them.)
- Variables and binding values determine how data will be passed through the bot from the starting point to its destination.
- Source code that contains the commands that the bot is supposed to perform.
As technical as those components are, an RPA developer can easily configure them according to their company’s specific needs. Many robotic process automation companies offer their tools as a type of low-code platform, which requires little programming knowledge. The result is that businesses can adapt their RPA tools to their own business processes, creating a better fit for their needs.
Benefits of RPA
We’ve seen a few of them already, but here’s a closer look at some robotic process automation benefits that you can expect.
Improved Efficiency and Productivity
One of the greatest advantages of RPA technology is the improved productivity it brings to your workforce. Some surveys estimate that 70% of employees believe that 40% of their time is wasted on tasks that could be automated. Free up your employees by automating those tedious tasks, and you empower them to go after that sale, develop a better product, assist with digital transformation efforts, or do other valuable work. RPA tools make employees more productive.
Because it’s typically a type of low-code platform, a robotic process automation solution can reduce the amount of programming that your employees have to do. Your developers won’t have to write line upon line of source code in order to make their RPA tool run, as most contain drag-and-drop functionalities to incorporate the necessary functionalities into your tool. And because low-code platforms are generally more flexible than no-code platforms, a custom functionality specific to your businesses’ operations could be coded in as needed.
Employees call in sick. They ask for raises, require benefits, and carry a host of other costs that RPA robots simply don’t. When businesses automate their processes, they eliminate the need for as many employees, freeing some up to advance into more technical positions where they can add more value to the company. Free from excessive employee costs, an automated business runs leaner than one that executes its processes manually.
Higher Customer Satisfaction
RPA tools don’t just boost the bottom line — they also enhance customer satisfaction. Software robots never take a holiday, so their continuous operation enables them to address customer concerns faster than manual legacy systems. The result is faster processing time, better customer service, and higher profitability.
Increased Accuracy and Quality
Automation software also increases a company’s accuracy in its business processes, improving quality along the way. For example, a human can make mistakes as they incorrectly enter data, such as copying and pasting into an incorrect form or transposing lines of data.
These errors can lead to false business insights and waste further time as others have to correct their errors. They’re also inevitable with human workers but are eliminated by RPA tools.
RPA tools can improve a company’s regulatory compliance in several ways. First, the errors that human workers sometimes make could put businesses in violation of important statutes or policies, and since RPA tools eliminate these errors, they remove the compliance violations that come with them. RPA tools can also verify that any scheduled updates or maintenance tasks are performed automatically, and their report-generation features leave an audit trail to help prove compliance.
Use Cases of RPA
Industries of all types are saddled with menial tasks that distract them from their primary business goal. Because of that, companies have adopted robotic process automation in healthcare, finance, manufacturing, and many other sectors. Here are the most common robotic process automation use cases we’ve seen to date.
Finance and Accounting
The financial industry is notoriously filled with tedious, repetitive tasks that are essential for completing its operations. That makes them ideal for automation — which is why over one in three bots are in the finance sector. They’re used to complete a wide variety of tasks, including:
- Customer research
- Opening accounts
- Inquiry processing
- Money laundering detection
All of these tasks are highly rule-based, repetitive, and high-volume, making them perfectly suited for robotic process automation implementation.
The healthcare industry is notorious for having many repetitive business processes. From invoicing to entering patient data to integrating or transferring records, a great deal of time, energy, and money is dedicated to completing tasks that robots can do better.
Not only are these tasks repetitive, but they also are triggered by specific events such as patient admission or notification of outstanding balances. Accuracy is also essential in the case of patient health information (PHI), as incorrect data entry regarding medications or procedures may even impact patients’ health.
All this makes healthcare robotic process automation a critical part of elevating both patient care outcomes and organizational profitability. By performing repetitive tasks such as data entry or record upkeep without human intervention, healthcare personnel are free to complete more value-adding work. Some have even reported saving hundreds of man-hours per month — especially critical at a time when healthcare providers are severely short-staffed — ultimately leading to annual savings of hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.
The manufacturing industry already relies heavily on automation for its physical and mechanical processes, and some businesses have found that they have much to gain from automating their legacy systems. Manufacturing companies must routinely perform a litany of mundane, repetitive tasks — the kind that are ideal for automation. Some of these include:
- Updating inventory levels for both incoming materials and outgoing products.
- Logging employees in and out of their time clocks (confirming compliance with labor laws).
- Tracking order statuses to estimate delivery times.
- Responding to customer inquiries regarding shipments or other concerns.
Another more advanced application of RPA tools in the manufacturing sector is its use in predictive analytics. Rather than manually scanning equipment or checking it to determine its need for repair, RPA tools can be used in tandem with embedded sensors and tracking systems to anticipate maintenance needs before a breakdown occurs. This minimizes downtime and reduces equipment failure while maximizing production and profitability.
The first benefit the IT sector gains from RPA tools is that it no longer has to clean up other departments’ mess. When an employee makes an error in their data entry, IT may have to interrupt their own workflow to correct a system error and restore their databases’ functionality. This costs valuable time and effort that your IT team could spend improving your stack, dampening your business’ efficiency.
Some RPA tools can also help automate coding processes so that your IT team won’t have to write as many basic lines of script.
Robotic Process Automation Technologies
RPA tools can already handle basic tasks, but recent innovations are likely to make them more capable than ever. Here’s where the technology is headed.
RPA and Intelligent Automation
The endgame for RPA technology is the ability to go beyond automating a human worker’s tasks and not only automate entire system workflows but plan for and adapt to those changes all in one. Such intelligent robotic process automation — or intelligent automation (IA) for short — will combine the learning and critical thinking mechanisms that power AI with the task automation capabilities that RPA possesses.
With this combination, IA systems can examine business process workflows to find areas that can be automated or optimized for greater efficiency. They can do this with greater context than their current capabilities allow, viewing systems as a whole rather than as a series of discrete events. That allows them to renovate entire business processes, anticipate and adapt to disruptions, and empower companies to operate efficiently.
RPA and Artificial Intelligence
There is currently a difference between AI and RPA, but that line is blurring as both technologies mature. AI employs neural networks and advanced algorithms to learn, plan, and think according to human behavior, while RPA implements software robots (which may possess some AI-powered functionalities) to perform an actual task. AI is the head, and RPA is the hands.
As robotic process automation services integrate more AI features into their technology, you can expect to see their tools perform more sophisticated tasks that require greater problem-solving skills. An example would be troubleshooting customer difficulties with a product instead of simply leaving a record on their account of the need for a human to assist. At the system level, AI can help RPA software go beyond automating manual tasks to changing workflows within the organization — a key part of both business process automation and IA.
Take the Next Step and Future Proof Your Healthcare Workflows
You’ve seen how RPA tools work and what they have to offer. You’ve seen how specific industries use them and where the technology is headed. The only question: What can RPA tools do for your business?
At Consensus, we engineer cutting-edge RPA technology that can future-proof your workflows and help your employees get more done. Our RPA tools let you maximize your team’s efficiency, improve your operation’s quality and accuracy, and keep you compliant with existing regulations — and the technology is just getting started. RPA’s capabilities have the potential to transform the way your company does business. Get in touch with us for a product demo and start your automation journey today.