Robotic process automation (RPA) is the use of specialized software (or “bots”) to automate repetitive tasks normally done by humans, such as updating spreadsheets, transferring files and filling out forms. The goal is to help businesses run smoother, work faster and make fewer mistakes.

What Is Robotic Process Automation?

Robotic process automation (RPA) is the use of software bots to automate tedious work. Used in industries like banking, healthcare and customer service, RPA streamlines back-office tasks, from handling files to completing forms.

RPA bots fit easily into existing workflows because they can mimic human actions within different apps and programs. And they handle tasks we’d rather not do ourselves, reducing employee burnout and other negative consequences that often come with mundane work.

“Think of it like outsourcing work,” said Lou Bachenheimer, CTO for the Americas at enterprise automation company SS&C Blue Prism. “It can click here, type information there, read what’s written there, and pull all that together.”

 

How Does RPA Work?

RPA bots are created with software that enables them to follow a set of instructions for completing simple, repetitive tasks using structured data. They are programmed to imitate the human actions required to accomplish this work, such as clicking buttons, dragging files and copy-pasting information. Once they learn, bots can do these things automatically, and often much faster and more accurately than humans. 

After RPA bots are developed, they are integrated into an existing IT infrastructure or workflow, which involves connecting them to the various systems, databases and applications they’ll need to interact with to do their job. Then, they are put to work, performing the tasks they were programmed to do according to predefined instructions.

Going forward, RPA systems are closely monitored to ensure the bots are performing as expected. Any issues or errors that arise are flagged for human intervention. And the bots are regularly updated or modified as business processes evolve.
 

Attended vs. Unattended RPA

In general, there are two main forms of robotic process automation: attended RPA and unattended RPA.

Attended RPA

Attended automation involves human oversight and interaction, where bots have to be manually triggered to complete their tasks. With attended RPA, bots work alongside employees, much like personal assistants. They automate day-to-day tasks like data entry, increasing human productivity. But they must complete each job fully before a user moves them to another activity.

Unattended RPA

Unattended RPA operates on its own, and does not require human oversight or intervention to start an automation process. “There’s no actual person sitting there, watching or guiding or co-piloting the bot,” said Adam Glaser, senior vice president of product management at process automation company Appian. Rather, these bots execute tasks in the background, and are typically triggered by specific events, like a scheduled time, a change to a database or when a new file is detected.

Learn from the ExpertsYour Business Automated. Now What?

 

RPA Use Cases

RPA bots are used to automate the repetitive, back-office tasks of just about every industry. Virtually any high-volume, rules-driven process can be handled by RPA.
 

Banking

In the banking industry, robotic process automation is used to match transactions across multiple accounts in real-time to identify discrepancies and flag suspicious activities. It is also used to automate the document verification, credit check and approval process of loan or credit card applications. 

As one of the most-regulated industries in the world, financial institutions also use RPA to remain compliant with the law. For example, bots can automatically gather data from disparate sources, including government websites and federal bodies, and input this information into a bank’s internal system to ensure it stays within the guidelines.

 

Healthcare

In the healthcare industry, process automation is used to automatically schedule appointments, send reminders and update information in electronic health record systems. It is also used to amalgamate the various costs of tests, medicines, procedures and consultations into one bill, which is then shared with patients and submitted to insurance companies.

On the provider side, RPA is used to update patient records and transfer data between systems, helping to ensure data accuracy and integrity, which could potentially save lives, Bachenheimer said. “Do you know how many people die each year because of typos? Robots don’t make typos.”

 

Retail and E-commerce

RPA can be used by retailers to track stores’ inventory levels, automatically reorder products when stock is low and update inventory records in real time. It can also automate order requests, inventory checks and order status updates across multiple systems, speeding up delivery times. 

RPA isn’t just helpful on the back-end either, it also makes customers’ lives easier. Bots are often used to automatically respond to inquiries, streamline the returns and refunds process and escalate complex issues to human agents when necessary. 

 

Manufacturing

The manufacturing industry is no stranger to automation, with industrial robots and cobots completing repetitive and dangerous manual tasks in factories. Meanwhile, RPA bots are used to automate the digital tasks, including supply chain management, quality control and warehouse management. 

Bots manage orders, track shipments in real-time and provide status updates to customers, coordinate freight bookings and other logistics and optimize supply chain operations. They are also used to automate quality checks of products, and monitor the performance of the manufacturing equipment itself, alerting maintenance teams of any possible issues and triggering any appropriate corrective steps.

 

Human Resources

While new employees are onboarding, RPA bots can set up accounts, collect documents and send training assignments as needed, as well as deactivate any accounts during offboarding. They can also assist in collecting timesheet data, benefit information and more to calculate payroll amounts and automatically send direct deposits to employees.

In general, human resources is a data-heavy space. Companies have to maintain records on all employees regarding their pay, performance, insurance and taxes. RPA helps HR teams manage all of this information, reducing errors and giving them more time to tackle the more “human” parts of human resources, like employee engagement and talent development.

Related Reading21 Examples of Robotic Process Automation

 

Benefits of RPA

More Consistent 

Humans don’t always perform tasks perfectly, especially if those tasks are repetitive or require close attention to detail. They misclick, misspell, forget. That isn’t the case with RPA. Bots follow predefined rules consistently, without straying or getting tired, so tasks are performed more accurately and reliably.

 

Saves Time and Money

RPA bots can perform repetitive tasks much faster than a human ever could, reducing the amount of money needed to complete that work. Indeed, bots are “drastically cheaper,” than human employees, Bachenheimer said, which allows companies to save on labor costs.

 

Auditable

RPA bots adhere to predefined rules to handle simple tasks, making it easy to audit and review their work at any time, Glaser said. This makes RPA a much safer automation option than artificial intelligence, particularly in highly regulated industries. AI hallucinates, and it makes decisions even experts can’t fully explain.

“AI can be a black box that can be a compliance nightmare,” Bachenheimer said. “Especially in more regulated industries, if you can do it with simple rules, nine times out of 10 [RPA] is going to be your best bet.”

 

More Productive (and Satisfied) Employees

Bachenheimer estimates that one bot working round-the-clock can do the work of as many as 10 full-time human employees. And by automating mundane and tedious tasks, RPA gives employees more time to focus on work that requires strategic thinking. 

 

Disadvantages of RPA

Dependent on Structured Data

RPA is most effective when working with structured data, or data that has been precisely labeled and organized. “Bots only work in rows and columns,” said Brian Weiss, senior vice president and field CTO at enterprise AI company Hyperscience.  “Any unstructured data, that’s not going to work.”

That means companies have to do work on the back-end to ensure their data is formatted in a way that a bot can understand. Sometimes, the time and resources needed to accomplish that “far outweigh” whatever benefits an RPA system can provide, said Vijay Tella, co-founder and CEO at enterprise automation company Workato.

 

Not Adaptable

RPA bots are programmed to perform specific tasks within predefined parameters, making them unable to adapt to changing circumstances to handle tasks outside of their scope. 

“Unlike a human, if a bot looks and doesn’t see the file it expects, it’s just going to give up,” Glaser said. “It is not nearly as smart as a person, or as resilient.”

 

Limited Capabilities

While RPA is great at automating simple, rules-based tasks, its capabilities stop there. “RPA systems do what they are told and that’s it,” Tella said.

Unlike artificial intelligence, bots cannot be creative or learn new things. “They’re not smart at all,” Weiss said. “And they’re never going to get smart.” So they should not be used in any creative or innovative tasks, or work that requires rapid adaptation.

 

Difficult to Scale and Upgrade 

As companies add more bots to perform more tasks, they risk creating an unwieldy web of disparate software that can be challenging to manage and scale at an enterprise level. 

“You’re just creating a pile of things that you’ve got to go clean up next time you want to upgrade,” Weiss said  — in a sense, defeating the whole purpose of automation to begin with.

Related ReadingHow Your Org Can Successfully Implement AI

 

RPA vs. AI

Although they are both used to automate business operations, robotic process automation and artificial intelligence are not the same thing. They each serve different purposes and operate in distinct ways.

AI simulates human intelligence, allowing machines to solve problems, make predictions and perform other complex tasks. It encompasses subfields like machine learning, natural language processing and generative AI — all of which help computers to continuously learn from data, recognize patterns and even understand language.

RPA, meanwhile, automates routine, programmatic tasks by mimicking human actions with bots. RPA uses structured data and step-by-step rules to complete simple tasks with speed and accuracy, while AI uses unstructured data to develop its own logic and perform complex decision-making and analysis. 

“I think of AI as the brains ... RPA is the hands on the keyboard.”

“I think of AI as the brains. It can figure out complex decisions, it can look at large sets of data and extract insights,” Bachenheimer explained. “RPA is the hands on the keyboard” that actually get things done. 

Still, RPA and AI are “quite complementary” to each other, Glaser said. Integrating artificial intelligence into RPA systems can enhance their capabilities through intelligent automation, allowing businesses to automate more complex processes and derive deeper insights from their data.

For example, a company could use RPA bots to input sales data from an Excel file into a machine learning algorithm, which could then predict what the next three fiscal quarters of sales will look like. Or a retailer can use bots to automate inventory management tasks like processing orders and updating product prices, while an AI chatbot on its website answers customers’ inquiries and provides product recommendations and updates in real-time.

More on AIWhy Artificial Intelligence Will Never Replace Your Back Office


Will RPA Replace Humans?

One of the biggest concerns with RPA is its potential for widespread job loss. Indeed, since 2000, automation has phased out some 1.7 million manufacturing jobs. And many white-collar jobs are at risk of being made obsolete now that bots can handle the work on their own.   

But many industry experts insist that an automated future will not be a jobless one. RPA is primarily designed to streamline repetitive, rules-based tasks, allowing employees to focus on more strategic or complicated work that cannot be replicated by a bot. Plus, automation technology is poised to create millions of new roles. 

Ultimately, the future of RPA will likely be one where bots and humans work together to help businesses run more efficiently. And employees should prepare and adapt as best they can.

 

Frequently Asked Questions

What is robotic process automation?

Robotic process automation (RPA) is the use of specialized software, or “bots,” to automate repetitive, rules-based work, such as transferring files and filling out forms.

What are the types of RPA?

There are two main types of RPA: Attended and unattended. Attended RPA requires human oversight and interaction, where bots have to be manually triggered to complete their tasks. Unattended RPA does not require any intervention to start an automation process. Rather, these bots execute tasks in the background, and are typically triggered by specific events like a scheduled time or when a new file is detected.

What is the difference between RPA and AI?

RPA automates routine, programmatic work by mimicking human actions with bots, while AI simulates human intelligence, allowing machines to solve problems, make predictions and perform other cognitive tasks. And while RPA systems require structured data and specific rules to complete simple tasks, AI uses unstructured data to develop its own logic and perform complex decision-making and analysis. Still, AI can be implemented into RPA systems to enhance their capabilities in a process called intelligent automation.

Great Companies Need Great People. That's Where We Come In.

Recruit With Us