Unfortunately, many businesses still execute high-volume repetitive tasks manually. For instance, order processing, approvals, request confirmation, processing claims, and document fulfillment.
While it is vital to keep businesses running, such mundane tasks typically slow part of the overall business workflow. This causes financial loss and hinders productivity.
This is where the cardinal question comes in: if a task has a relatively straightforward flow, why not automate it with RPA?
What is Robotic Process Automation?
Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is essentially a technology solution for automating mundane business tasks. Practically, RPA involves specialised software robots running on a computer to execute a defined set of instructions for business, at high volume and speed.
Unlike autonomous robots, RPA bots focus on repetitive computer-based tasks and everyday workplace processes. For example, copy-paste tasks, or moving files from one location to another.
Types of Robotic Process Automation
RPA bots are basically lines of code that automate business processes by emulating humans who execute manual, repetitive tasks, based on predefined rules. These processes don’t require human judgment, thus enabling employees to focus on more intricate, higher-value tasks.
There are four main types of RPA robots that are prevalent across different industries, namely:
1. Data entry robots
Data entry robots take existing electronic data, then automatically feed it from one system to another. They execute tasks like a human would, for example, logging into and out of systems or copying and pasting information. This also means they do not require complex integrations.
‘Copy and paste’ processes are typically slow, error-prone, and expensive when humans perform them. Data entry bots, on the other hand, offer a less expensive path that involves simple software logic.
2. System integration robots
System integration bots are employed to “patch” a connection between systems that don’t speak to each other but are too sophisticated or labour-intensive to integrate.
Unfortunately, most businesses still maintain legacy systems that have been continually customised over the years.
And when organisations merge or are acquired, legacy systems from each business can operate in silos. This creates a lot of manual work that can be handled by system integration bots.
3. Scheduled/trigger robots
Scheduled/triggered bots handle tasks that are simple by nature, but can’t be performed until a specific event takes place. For example, a date on the calendar, or a predecessor task.
4. Validation and verification robots
Fundamentally, validation robots execute real-time calls to internal or third-party systems to validate the accuracy or authenticity of the information. They essentially convert reactive and unreliable processes into proactive and automated ones.
For example, when handling a verification issue, a bot can escalate the problem to a human ‘co-worker’, best equipped to handle it. In financial institutions, such bots trawl internal systems and databases to verify a customer’s identity and ascertain if they are a risk for an organisation.
What processes are suitable for RPA?
RPA is best suited to automate particular processes to ensure a high ROI on any automation efforts. Such processes share a common set of characteristics, namely:
- Rule-based: RPA is suitable for processes that can be described with a flowchart. Particularly those that involve human judgment and discretion when performing them
- High transaction volumes: RPA can also be adapted to tasks that take specified amounts of time. For example, requiring at least Y minutes per day to be executed. In essence, the more the time savings, the better the Return on Investment (ROI).
- Low exceptions: RPA can handle situations where multiple edge scenarios can be handled by a bot. Fundamentally, the less exception or error handling necessitated, the better it is.
- Stable and well-defined processes: RPA can be deployed to scenarios that involve up-to-date standard operating procedures (SOPs).
- Structured data and readable electronic inputs: RPA is typically used to handle scenarios involving input and output data in a fixed, digital format. Especially, if the data is readily available for training and testing purposes.
How does Robotic Process Automation work?
Without complicating things, typical RPA can be broken down into three core steps.
- Training– After installing the RPA bot on your computer/server, it must receive instructions to execute tasks. These instructions are called training, and most of the time, do not require programming skills or intricate software configurations. The most popular RPA training method is a screen capture. This involves completing a task once, then the robot can capture steps and file directories. After that, the RPA bot can reproduce the steps you executed.
- Operation– After the bot is trained, there are two main ways it can operate, namely:
- Attended RPA: Here, the software needs a user to trigger the robot to start or stop in order to complete its task. Such bots also require minor modifications to accurately execute tasks when the flow changes. For instance, a file destination change.
- Unattended RPA: This type of RPA operates without human involvement. Most often, these RPA bots are installed on a virtual machine or a server and run in the background. Instead of being manually launched, unattended RPA utilises “trigger events” to complete tasks.
- Orchestration: When multiple bots are required to perform different tasks, orchestration is needed. Orchestration essentially involves a control panel that allows a user to install bots, prescribe tasks for them, launch or stop them, and monitor performance.
Key benefits of RPA technology
- Increased productivity as robots work 24/7 and perform repetitive tasks faster, without errors.
- Increased revenue growth as freed up human capacity allows for exploration of new growth areas and new revenue streams.
- Reduced compliance costs and risks as RPA bots repeat tasks perfectly, thus reducing human errors.
- Better employee engagement as RPA frees up humans from tedious, unpleasant work so that they have the capacity for creative, interactive work.
- Increased productivity and better-engaged employees result in a better customer experience.
- Reduced reliance on a human workforce safeguards business continuity in times of crises, like the recent Covid-19 pandemic.
Sector applications of Robotic Process Automation
As we have already established, RPA can automate mundane tasks, supply the same information to multiple systems, and even bridge poorly integrated software systems.
However, to contextualise how RPA alleviates labour-intensive tasks, let’s see some sector-specific examples.
Since the healthcare sector involves substantial paperwork, for example, patient forms on appointments, RPA can help with data ingestion. For instance, transferring information from paper to electronic health record systems.
Furthermore, RPA can help automate appointment scheduling by sending notifications to the patients and synchronising with other patient scheduling software.
RPA can help in returns processing, which is one of the most tedious tasks for e-Commerce businesses involving inventory checks, billing, customer data, and validation.
RPA can aid in product categorisation as bots can be trained to categorise, label, and upload products. Essentially, since manual inventory upload is always a pain, RPA can dramatically reduce the error rates and speed up the process.
RPA can be employed to automate the manual operations pertaining to the opening and closing of clients’ bank accounts. Furthermore, RPA bots can be trained to initiate direct salary credits for credit card holders, or even validate client data via specific parameters.
The insurance space is one of the most regulated domains, and RPA is a gamechanger.
RPA can be exploited to reduce the human error associated with high-volume insurance tasks that demand accuracy and strict adherence to regulations.
Furthermore, RPA can handle new policy issuance and update existing ones by automating the gathering and validating large amounts of data. Or even creating payment IDs and matching them with associated policies.
Additionally, since many players in the insurance sector still rely on legacy systems for business process management, RPA can ease integration between disparate systems.
For example, ERPs or Business Process Management (BPM) software.
Are AI and RPA related?
As more companies adopt RPA technology, there is still some confusion regarding the relationship between artificial intelligence (AI) and RPA.
To clear the air, despite similarities, AI augments and mimics human judgment and behaviour in computer systems. On the other hand, RPA technology replicates rule-based human actions.
That being said, the two technologies are more or less complementary in driving productivity for organisations. So, we can say that AI technology basically augments RPA by handling more sophisticated data and emulating human decision making.
Practical examples of Robotic Process Automation
RPA focuses on improving productivity across users, customers, employees, business people, accountants, sales and marketing people, legal and financial analysts.
Practically, RPA helps accountants to create rules to send invoices for approval automatically. Thus, enabling them to focus on the outliers. It also helps automate the matching process to signal any errors for review before submitting payments.
Similarly, in human resource environments, RPA bots are being used to source applicants with more accuracy and no bias. After applicant sourcing, RPA bots also screen resumes and candidates.
Read here for a more comprehensive list of practical RPA examples.
In summary, RPA is essentially an advanced vertical of business process automation that mimics repetitive tasks typically performed by humans.
Then proceeds to execute the same tasks without human intervention. Fundamentally, serving as a virtual robot copycat that is taught a basic workflow with several steps and applications.
In the coming years, RPA technology will continuously improve to complement humans, not take their jobs. Robots will not create unemployment and shouldn’t be feared but embraced to free employees for more meaningful work. Thus, advancing organisations’ digital transformation efforts.
Employed on a large scale, RPA can significantly improve the general workflow of a company and provide impressive ROI. To exemplify this, an IBM study reported that companies using RPA for accounting tasks, processed invoices twice as fast as non-users, 43% faster, and with 40% less cost.
LinkedIn: Dr. Yeong Che Fai
Dr Yeong Che Fai is the Chairman and one of the co-founder of DF Automation & Robotics. He is also an Associate Professor at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia. He graduated with a PhD from Imperial College London and his M.Eng and B.Eng were from Universiti Teknologi Malaysia. He is known as one of the leading robotics experts in Malaysia.
His interests are in AI, robotics, innovations and entrepreneurship. He has won more than 100 awards such as MOE Entrepreneurship Mentor Award, British Invention Show, Star Outstanding Business Award (SOBA), APICTA and ROBOCON.
He was in Austrian Leadership Program (Vienna) and also the Newton Fund Leader in Innovation Fellowship Program (London) sponsored by the respective government. He had undergone two entrepreneurship programs at Silicon Valley.
He has published close to 100 publications and is a seasonal speaker for various topics including AI, robotics, innovation, entrepreneurship and leadership. He has spoken at TEDx twice and will speak his 3rd TEDx talk in October 2021.