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?
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.
Now 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
“Bored, stressed and overworked staff
equals falling quality and decreased accuracy.”
Now 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
What it isn't
Don'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.
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
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
The 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.
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”
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
Is this really a magic pill?
Like 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
- 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):
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.