Robotic Process Automation is a wide topic that’s been evolving for years, so we’ll just keep things light and terminology simple for the sake of sanity - after all - we’re not robots.

Over the last few years, there has been increased talk in the press about Robotic Process Automation (RPA). This article is a brief beginner's guide to the basic concepts.  

What is it?

Robotic Process Automation? “Robot”? When we think of robots in industry, we're used to seeing big mechanical arms that rotate, pick up, move assembly parts around and weld with a flurry of whirring and sparks. Why do we bother using these cumbersome hunks of metal? Well, they're strong, they're accurate, they're fast and they're super reliable. In vehicle manufacturing most tasks are monotonous and repetitive: pick up parts, assemble, fix, and repeat. Each specific stage of assembly will be processed by a different robot, rather than one robot that moves through the whole process. Years ago in early 1900s, Henry Ford was among the first to actively use an assembly line for the manufacture of his cars. Over the years, these have become more and more efficient with less waste (side note: there's a vast set of lessons useful in business about elimination of process waste - but let's save that for another time). In the 1970s, General Motors started putting industrial robots into their production lines, further increasing production speed, accuracy and reliability while decreasing assembly costs.

Keyboard & AppsNow picture an office, where staff are struggling to keep up with demand. Employees have to deal with the mountains of emails, reports that need assembling, calls that needs answers not to mention the data collection and organisation that can become a mass of spaghetti! Increasingly we're being asked to wear many hats - to perform a wide range of skills. The truth is, we humans just aren't that great at juggling many tasks at once. Worse, we're quickly bored if we are bogged down with repetitive tasks - undermining our attention to detail, our accuracy and our overall performance.  Bored, stressed and overworked staff equals falling quality and decreased accuracy.

“Bored, stressed and overworked staff equals falling quality and decreased accuracy.”

Robot 2Now imagine an office where those monotonous repetitive tasks could be lifted out and given to software robots which are told how to move that data around or how to compile those reports. Software robots really don't care about monotony, and their performance is as strong after a long shift as it was at the beginning. They also don't take breaks. Software robots are generally faster, more accurate and more reliable - they don't care if tasks are boring - they just plough on. By giving up these types of task, staff have a lot more time to respond to those emails or answer those calls - and productivity increases.  This is Robotic Process Automation - the ability of software robotics to follow instructions to automate our volume processes.

What it isn't

Robot Desk XDon't be fooled by what we normally picture in our minds with the word “robots”. Software robotics isn't anything physical. It's not a set of metal robots sitting at desks typing, drinking tea, or standing by the water cooler. Nor is it an army of terminators causing havoc in our open-plan office spaces. When talking about robotics, there is often fear - a worry about an uprising. Rest assured, robotic process automation isn't something to be afraid of. In fact, the opposite is true - the use of RPA can help businesses save money, boost productivity and deliver more consistent results.  Staff who were previously bogged down in monotony now have more time for creative, constructive, reactive and real human tasks.

“The use of RPA can help businesses save money, boost productivity and deliver more consistent results.  Staff who were previously bogged down in monotony now have more time for creative, constructive, reactive and real human tasks.
How does it work?

The whole point of RPA is that it avoids the need for businesses to create new interfaces or systems to move data around. It is designed to use the same screens and software that office workers use. This means it can be instructed to open a browser or application such as Excel or even your company's own back-office application, navigate around, fill in fields, copy data out and can perform the usual keyboard/mouse actions that you're used to. Additionally, it can respond in real time to surges in demand - automatically and quickly putting more robots online during peak periods. The bottom-line, if staff can perform repetitive tasks using only their PCs using keyboard and mouse, RPA software is ready to help.

What's the link with artificial intelligence?

AI 1The simplest forms of robotic process automation have no link with artificial intelligence. A software robot can be set up to do a set of tasks over and over again without the need to make decisions by itself. Take some numbers from a set of documents, copy them and paste them into a spreadsheet. Easy.

However, some tasks require a little additional care. What if sources of data are unreliable, or less structured, or prone to misreads such as reading values from scanned images? What if complex decisions need to be made on the data quality before being used? A human operator performing data entry will know when data doesn't look right and shouldn't be used at face value. Unless we use some form of artificial intelligence, software robots are unable to make judgement calls. Sure - robots may be quick - but without the ability for the robot to say, 'Hey, this looks a bit dodgy, let me see if I can do better', or 'Nope, that looks bad, I'll flag this up for someone to help me', we result in a system that nobody has faith in. With the inclusion of artificial intelligence, we can get better at interpreting data, and getting the robot to perform the decision-making that we take for granted.

“With the inclusion of artificial intelligence, we can get better at interpreting data, and getting the robot to perform the decision-making that we take for granted”
Why should I be bothered about it?

Over the last few years the amount of investment in RPA has grown exponentially. Systems are getting better and smarter, and companies using RPA are becoming not just adopters but promoters. If you work in an office, or if there's an office where you work, robotic process automation, or software robotics will become a topic of discussion not just around the water cooler, but at all levels. If you're currently doing repetitive tasks day in day out, imagine what you could achieve with more time to do your real job. If you're at manager or board level, you will be keen to see what benefits to your company there are - and indeed how you can keep up with your competitors.

“If you're at manager or at board level, you will be keen to see what benefits to your company there are - and indeed how you can keep up with your competitors.”
Is this really a magic pill?

Red Pill Blue PillLike all new technology, it's definitely best NOT to wade in without planning or external hand-holding. RPA systems have a wealth of tools and features and far too often companies get over-excited about what could be achieved (like a child in a toy shop). The best approach is to start small on a very considered set of processes. There can be many quick wins, but if the processes aren't chosen correctly, you will soon struggle to see any benefits. In vehicle assembly lines, there are some stages that are still done far better by people than by robots. We, as humans, all have our strengths, and these strengths are not at threat - software robots are here to help, not to replace. 

How can I find out more?

There are thousands of articles like this one online, hundreds of white papers, and many companies creating great software. So where do you start? Well, rather than getting too bogged down in documents, white papers and software trials, it's definitely best to talk to people who can help advise where RPA is of benefit in your business. There are more wrong ways to do RPA than right. There are many traps to fall into, and lots of best-practice tricks. I would recommend doing four things:

  • Familiarise: Become acquainted with the basics by talking to experts in the field of RPA.
  • Limit: Ask experts to help you to apply RPA to a limited set of processes. RPA works amazingly for some processes, but offers no advantage for others.
  • Own it: Let your company become internally skilled in RPA, developing a centre of excellence so that you can own your strategy and application.
  • Win: Reap the benefits of increased productivity from your staff and your processes. Let humans do the things they're best at, and give the boring repetitive stuff to the robots!

Lastly, apologies for the aide-memoire acronym (FLOW) - but we're human after all - and some things stick better that way.

Commentary by Christian Shawcross (Director - Procurement & Supply Chain):

An excellent piece from Daniel which helps to dispel the mystery around Robotics. As Daniel says, this is a good opportunity for organisations to make their operations much more efficient. As with all new technologies, there is a rapid evolving process in the early stages when the application becomes clearer. This is not to say that companies cannot harness the benefits now, and the earlier that businesses take advantage, the more they will be equipped to implement processes to reap the benefits. PSD is working with a number of organisations who can help to scope out where the opportunities lie and we already have an established practice to help organisations to recruit individuals who are skilled in this area. For more information, please contact Christian.