Nowadays, there is almost no aspect of our lives that is unaffected by automation. Some examples include washing machines, microwave ovens, autopilot mode for automobiles and airplanes, Nestlé using Robots to sell coffee pods in stores in Japan, Walmart testing drones to deliver products in the US, our bank checks being sorted using Optical Character Recognition (OCR), and ATMs.
The term automation is derived from the Greek words autos meaning self, and motos, meaning moving. It is believed to have been coined in the 1940s when there was an increased use of automated devices in mechanized production lines in the Ford Motor Company.
Automation, in simple words, is technology that deals with the application of machines and computers to the production of goods and services. This helps in getting work done with little or no human assistance.
With the advent of computers, many software systems were developed to accomplish tasks that were previously done on paper to manage businesses, or not being done at all due to the lack of tools. Some of these are bookkeeping, inventory management, and communications management.
There is also a type of software that ties these systems and people together in workflows, known as Business Process Management (BPM) tools. This software has been developed for areas such as record systems, engagement systems, insight systems, and innovation systems. These mostly replicate processes in real-life scenarios.
In the digital world, automation and software development are two different terms. Very often, however, one is confused with the other. If some portion of a workflow can be programmed to be done without human intervention, it can be called automation. For example, in order to pass any invoice in a payment system, Ms. Julia at ABC organization needs to check that goods have been delivered and recorded in an inventory management system. This is a cumbersome job, as it has to be done for each and every invoice. Also, for larger organizations, more people are needed to do this check on computers. However, Jack, an application developer, proposes that he can integrate those two systems using database integration techniques. He will write a procedure that will fetch data from the inventory management system and automate the check of receivables.
Developing an inventory management software system is called software development, while programming a step so that no more human intervention is required is called automation.
In this chapter, you will learn about the basic concepts of automation and Robotic process automation.
There are various techniques used and available to automate steps and processes in an organization where software systems are being used to accomplish certain tasks. Before we look at these techniques however, let us see what can be automated and what should be automated.
There are a few aspects that have to be taken into consideration for choosing automation candidates. The following processes should be automated:
- Repetitive steps
- Time-consuming steps
- High-risk tasks
- Tasks with a low-quality yield
- Tasks involving multiple people and multiple steps
- And everything else!
We have found out what should be automated. Now the question arises what can be automated?
In order to automate something, it needs to have the following characteristics:
- Well defined and rule-based steps
- An input to the task can be diverted to the software system
- Input can be deciphered by software systems with available techniques
- The output system is accessible
- Benefits are more than the cost
There are various techniques available for automation and programmers have been using them for years to increase efficiency in enterprises:
- Custom software: Developing new software to perform repetitive tasks.
- Runbook: Runbooks are typically used for IT-based operations. They are a compilation of a set of commands or tasks that are performed for maintenance and other types of activities. Runbooks can be offline as well, often referred to as run commands for performing sets of tasks.
- Batch: Batch files used to very popular. They used to compile a sequence of commands that could be run by a single click or command. They can also be scheduled to be run at a specific time using the scheduler.
- Wrapper: Wraps around existing software or hosts client applications. The wrapper monitors activities in a client app and performs actions based on rules.
- Putting validation on top of a mainframe application using hummingbird
- Hosting a website inside a shell, navigation, and actions
- Browser automation: Greasemonkey and many other web macro software helped in browser-based automation. It can be used to read from a website and save to a database. It can also write to fields based on rules. Using this technique, a whole website can be changed, and components can be added or removed from the website. Sometimes, it is also referred to as web scripting or web injections.
- Desktop automation: Traditionally, desktop automation used to mean that multiple screens on a desktop were woven together to present a single screen, and if there was some data transfer from one screen to another, it could be done automatically. Recently, assisted Robotics process automation has also been considered for desktop automation by some companies.
- Database/web service integration: In database integration, we read/write to a client database directly. In web service integration, we communicate with the client system using a web service:
Today, automation has reached a stage of maturity where a number of other technologies have developed from it. Robotic process automation (RPA) is one such transformational burgeoning area. Robot in Robotic process automation means software programs that mimic human actions.
In simple words, RPA involves the use of software that mimics human actions while interacting with applications in a computer and accomplishing rule-based tasks. This often requires reading from and typing, or clicking on existing applications that are used to perform the given tasks.
In addition, these software Robots also perform complex calculations and decision making on the basis of the data and predefined rules. With the rapid progress of technology and renewed efforts in the area of artificial intelligence, it has become possible to use State activity: Transitions contain three sections—Trigger, Condition, and Action, which enable you to add a trigger for the next state or a condition under which an activity is to be executed. with RPA to accomplish tasks that were not possible earlier. Some of the technologies being adopted with RPA are as follows:
- Machine learning
- Natural language processing
- Natural language generation
- Computer vision
With the inclusion of the preceding technologies, sometimes it is also referred to as intelligent automation.
With the advent of RPA, it has become much easier to automate tasks. Now, we need to know only the steps taken by humans and make the Robots mimic the action on a computer screen using mouse and keyboard. This is a big deal because in most cases, the process is already defined and the steps documented. Humans also follow the same operating procedures, which define the steps taken to accomplish the task. Business logic, validation of data, transformation, and use of data is already coded in existing systems that humans use to accomplish a task, a simple example being invoice data entry.
RPA platforms allow the program, called Robots, to interact with any application in the same way a human would do, hence, automating rule-based work by recording those steps for later playback.
An important point that distinguishes RPA from traditional automation is that the software Robot is trained using steps that are illustrative rather than using instructions based on code. Thus, a person with little programming experience can be trained on these platforms to automate simple to complex processes.
Also, RPA software, unlike traditional automation, is capable of adapting to dynamic circumstances, for example, when checking an electronic form of new employees in a company. If the pin code is missing in a form, in traditional automation the software would point out the blank field as an exception, and then a human being would search for the relevant pin code and correct the form. In RPA however, the software is capable of performing all the tasks mentioned previously with no human assistance.
From tedious, repetitive, and high volume tasks, to diverse, complicated systems that need to work together lucidly, RPA can handle it all. There is consistency in quality, accuracy, productivity and efficiency, faster delivery of services, and of course, lower operation costs.
With the constant development and integration of RPA with industries, people previously engaged in mundane, repetitive tasks can now move on to engaging themselves in higher value, better quality activities, leaving the tedious tasks to the software Robots.
Today, RPA has matured beyond doing mundane repetitive tasks, and is seen as a transformational technology that can bring tremendous value to the organization adopting it. The ability to create full audit trails is significant for improving the quality of work being done and eliminating human error. Once trained, these Robots will perform tasks with the same precision over and over again. These Robots can interact with applications irrespective of the technologies on which the applications are built. They can work with popular ERP applications such as SAP, Oracle, or Microsoft Dynamics, and BPMs such as Pega systems and Appian.
Custom applications built on .NET, Java, the command-line, or mainframe terminal are easy to use with RPA.
With the inclusion of AI technologies, RPA now has the capability to read from images or
scanned documents, and it can interpret unstructured data and formats as well. However, most of the implementation is happening with structured and digital data.
Today, RPA is being widely accepted across industries and across the world. The following industries can benefit a lot from RPA:
- Business process outsourcing (BPO): With RPA and its benefits of reduced costs, the BPO sector can now depend less on outsourced labor.
- Insurance: The complexity and number of tasks that must be managed in the insurance sector, from managing policies, to filing and processing claims across multiple platforms, provides an ideal environment for the use of RPA technology.
- Financial sector: From day-to-day activities and handling an enormous amount of data, to performing complex workflows, RPA has been helping to transform this sector into an efficient and reliable one.
- Utility companies: These companies (such as gas, electricity, and water) deal with a lot of monetary transactions and can leverage RPA to automate tasks such as meter reading, billing, and processing customer payments.
- Healthcare: Data entry, patient scheduling, and more importantly billing and claims processing, are important areas where RPA can be used. RPA will help in optimizing patient appointments, sending them automatic reminders of their appointments and eliminating human error in patient records. This leaves workers to focus more on the needs of the patients, and also leads to improved patient experience.
The following are the benefits of RPA:
- Higher quality services, greater accuracy: With reduced human error and greater compliance, the quality of work is much better. Also, while it is difficult to trace the point at which the human error occurred, the detection of errors is much simpler in RPA. This is because every step in the automation process is recorded, making it faster to pinpoint errors with ease. A reduction, or removal of, errors also means greater accuracy of data, leading to better quality analytics and hence better decision making.
- Improved analytics: Since these software Robots can log each action taken with the appropriate tag and metadata, it is very easy to get business insights and other analytical data. Using analytics on the collected data such as transaction received time, transaction complete time, and predictions can be made for the incoming volume and ability to complete the tasks on time.
- Reduced costs: Nowadays, it is commonplace to hear that one Robot is equivalent to three human full-time executives (FTE). This is based on the simple fact that one FTE works for eight hours a day, while a Robot can work for 24 hours without a break. Increased availability and productivity means the cost of operations is reduced tremendously. The speed of the work being performed coupled with multitasking results in further reductions in cost.
- Increased speed: Robots are very fast and sometimes the speed of execution has to be reduced to match the speed and latency of the application on which these Robots work. Increased speed can result in better response times and an increase in the volume of the tasks being performed.
- Greater compliance: As mentioned earlier, a full audit trail is one of the highlights of RPA and can result in greater compliance. These Robots do not deviate from the defined set of steps to be taken while doing a task and hence it will certainly result in better compliance..
- Agility: Reducing and increasing the number of Robot resources requires managing the volume of the business process. This is just a click away. More Robots can be deployed to perform the same task easily. Redeployment of resources does not require any kind of coding or reconfiguration.
- Comprehensive insights: In addition to the audit trail and time stamping, Robots can tag transactions to use them later, in reports for business insight. By using these business insights, better decisions can be made for the improvement of the business. This recorded data can also be used for forecasting.
- Versatility: RPA is applicable across industries performing a wide range of tasks—from small to large businesses, simple to complex processes.
- Simplicity: RPA does not need prior programming knowledge. Most platforms provide designs in the form of flowcharts. This simplicity enables easy automation of business processes, leaving the IT professionals relatively free to carry out higher value work. Also, since automation is carried out by people from within the department or area of work, no requirements are lost in translation between the business unit and the development team, which may have happened otherwise in traditional automation.
- Scalability: RPA is highly scalable, up as well as down. Whether one requires an increase or reduction in the virtual workforce, Robots can be quickly deployed at zero or minimum costs while maintaining consistency in the quality of work.
- Time savings: Not only does the virtual workforce complete large volumes of work in a shorter span of time with precision, but they help save time in another way too. If there is any change—say, a technology upgrade it is much easier and faster for the virtual workforce to adapt to the changes. This can be done by bringing about modifications in the programming or introducing new processes. For humans, it is difficult for them to learn and get trained in something new—breaking from the old habit of performing repetitive tasks.
- Non- invasive: RPA, as we know, works at the user interface just like a human would. This ensures that it can be implemented without bringing changes to the existing computer systems. This helps in reducing risks and complexities that would arise in the case of traditional IT deployments.
- Better management: RPA allows for managing, deploying, and monitoring Robots through a centralized platform. This also lessens the need for governance.
- Better customer service: Since Robots can work around the clock, capacity increases. This leaves humans to focus on customer service and satisfaction. Also, better quality of services delivered to customers at faster speeds greatly boosts customer satisfaction.
- Increased employee satisfaction: With repetitive, dreary tasks now being taken over by the virtual workforce, employees are not just relieved of their workload, but can also engage in better quality work that requires the use of human capabilities and strengths such as emotional intelligence, reasoning, or tending to customers. Thus, RPA doesn't take away work, it just frees humans from tedious, mind-numbing work, giving us an opportunity to engage in much more satisfying jobs.
The applicability of RPA is across industries such as banking and financial services, insurance, healthcare, manufacturing, telecom, travel, and logistics. There is also penetration in industries such as consumer products, food and beverages, and entertainment.
There are horizontals irrespective of industries' domain that have seen a higher adoption, such as in finance and accounting, human resources, and procurement.
Most successful implementations are observed in what is being called industry-specific processes or domain-specific processes, for example, claims processing in the insurance industry.
Any Robotics process automation platform provides some basic components, which together build the platform.
The following are the basic or core components of RPA:
- Development Studio
- Bot Runner
- Control Center:
The recorder is the part of the development studio that developers use to configure the Robots. It is like the macro recorder in Excel, the bot recorder in any platform, records steps. It records mouse and keyboard movements on the UI and this recording can be replayed to do the same steps again and again. This enables rapid automation. This component has played a very big role in the popularity of RPA. We will see the application and usefulness of this component in chapter 2, Record and Play.
The development studio is used by developers to create Robot configuration or train the Robots. Using the development studio, a set of instructions and decision-making logic is coded for Robots to execute. Some platforms provide flow-charting capabilities such as Visio, so it becomes very easy to plot steps in a process, whereas some other platforms require coding. In most studios, in order to do commercial development, developers need to have a fair amount of knowledge of programming, for example, loops, if else, variable assignment, and so on. We will study the UiPath Development Studio in detail in Chapter 2, Record and Play.
Most platforms offer many plugins and extensions to ease the development and running of bots. In many applications, such as Java SAP, it is not easy to individually identify controls of the UI through traditional techniques. RPA vendors have developed plugins and extensions to help with these issues. We will get to understand importance of plugins and extensions of the UiPath platform later in the book.
This is also referred to as the Robot, other components make it run.
The objective of the control room is to provide Robot management capabilities. It monitors and controls a Robot's operation in a network. It can be used to start/stop Robots, make schedules for them, maintain and publish code, redeploy Robots to different tasks, and manage licenses and credentials.
The burgeoning RPA vendor market has been showing continual and steady growth. While the largest market is the US, followed by the UK, the market in Asia Pacific Countries (APAC) is also showing considerable progress. Successful pilot projects and increased customer satisfaction among the early adopters of RPA will encourage new players to adopt this technology. There is growing demand for RPA, especially in industries that need large-scale deployments. The major markets for RPA are banking and finance, healthcare and pharmaceuticals, telecom and media, and retail.
A few key vendors, their client market, and company specifications are mentioned in the following sections.
Automation Anywhere helps to automate business processes for companies. They focus on RPA, cognitive data (machine learning and natural language processing), and business analytics. Their bots are capable of handling both structured as well as unstructured data. The system has three basic components:
- A development client for the creation of a bot
- A runtime environment for the deployment of a bot
- A centralized command system for handling multiple bots, analyzing their performance:
- HQ: San Jose, California, USA
- Est: 2003
- CEO: Mihir Shukla
- Some key clients: Deloitte, Accenture, AT&T, GM, J P Morgan Chase
- Source of revenue by region: Its highest source of revenue is the USA, which accounts for more than half its revenue, followed by APAC, then UK and continental Europe
- Source of revenue by industry: The Banking, Financial services, and Insurance (BFSI) accounts for more than half of its revenue, followed by healthcare, telecom, media, and others
UiPath is an RPA technology vendor who designs and delivers software that helps automate businesses. The RPA platform consists of three parts:
- UiPath Studio to design the processes
- UiPath Robot to automate tasks designed in UiPath Studio
- UiPath Orchestrator to run and manage the processes:
- HQ: Bucharest, Romania
- CEO: Daniel Dines
- Key Clients: Atos, AXA, BBC, Capgemini, CenturyLink, Cognizant, Middlesea, OpusCapita, and SAP
- Source of revenue by region: North America, Continental Europe, the UK, and APAC
- Source of revenue by industry: BFSI, healthcare, telecom and media, and retail
Blue Prism aims to provide automation that enterprises can use according to their needs. Blue Prism aims to do this by providing automation that is scalable, configurable, and centrally managed. It sells its software through its partners, some of which are Accenture, Capgemini, Deloitte, Digital Workforce Nordic, HPE, HCL, IBM, TCS, Tech Mahindra, Thoughtonomy, and Wipro:
- HQ: United Kingdom
- Est: 2001
- CEO: Alastair Bathgate
- Key Clients: BNY Mellon, RWE npower, and Telefonica O2
- Source of revenue by region: More than half of its revenue source comes from the UK, followed by North America, Continental Europe, and APAC
- Source of revenue by industry: BFSI, health, and pharmaceuticals, retail and consumer, telecom and media, manufacturing, public sector, travel, and transportation
WorkFusion offers automation that is based on RPA and machine learning. It delivers software as a solution for automating high volume data. WorkFusion enables man and machine to work in tandem while managing, optimizing, or automating tasks:
- HQ: New York, USA
- Est: 2011
- CEO: Max Yangkelivich, Andrew Volkov
- Key Clients: Thomson Reuters, Infogroup, Citi, and Standard Bank
- Source of revenue by region: North America provides more than 80% of WorkFusion's revenue, followed by Europe, APAC, and MEA
- Source of revenue by industry: Around 90% of its revenue comes from the BFSI sector, followed by the retail and consumer sectors
Thoughtonomy delivers software that helps automate business and IT processes. It uses Blue Prism and other automation software and customizes it:
- HQ: London, UK
- Est: 2013
- CEO: Terry Walby
- Key Clients: Atos, Fujitsu, CGI, Unite BT, and Business Systems
- Sources of Revenue by region: Around 70% of revenue comes solely from the UK. The rest comes from Continental Europe, North America, APAC, and the Middle East and Africa (MEA)
- Sources of Revenue by industry: A major part of its revenue comes from third-party clients, followed by BFSI, public sector, telecom, healthcare, retail, and consumer sectors
Kofax's Kapow RPA platform is capable of automating and delivering processes that are repetitive and rule-based. It uses Robots for extracting and consolidating information. The software platform consists of a management console to deploy and manage bots, Robot performance, and a monitoring system. This software can also group together high priority tasks that should be completed first by the Robot during times of high workload. Kofax's software, however, doesn't have machine learning:
- HQ: Irvine, California
- CEO: Paul Rooke
- Key Clients: Arrow Electronics, Delta Dental of Colorado, Pitt Ohio, Audi
- Sources of revenue by region: North America accounts for almost half of its revenue, followed by Continental Europe, APAC, and LATAM (Latin America)
- Sources of revenue by industry: BFSI, retail, consumer, travel, transportation, public sector, manufacturing, and healthcare
Headquartered in Bucharest, UiPath is an RPA vendor that provides software to help organizations automate their business processes. The company aims to do away with repetitive and tedious tasks, allowing humans to engage in more creative and inspiring activities.
UiPath was founded by Daniel Dines, who is the CEO. It has offices in London, Bucharest, Tokyo, Paris, Singapore, Melbourne, Hong Kong, and Bengaluru. With clients spread across the world, from North America to the United Kingdom, Continental Europe to Asia Pacific countries, the company has shown remarkable growth in the last year, both in terms of revenue and its workforce.
Today, its software is being widely used to automate business processes. However, the IT sector is also gradually embracing UiPath's software. Major clients of UiPath in the industry include BFSI, Telecom and media, healthcare, retail and consumer, and manufacturing.
With UiPath automation software, one can configure software Robots to mimic human action on the user interface of computer systems. The basic components of the UiPath RPA platform are in line with what was explained in Components of RPA, these components are necessary for enterprise deployment. The components of the UiPath platform are UiPath Studio, UiPath Robot, and UiPath Orchestrator, see the following sections.
UiPath Studio helps users with no coding skills to design Robotic processes in a visual interface. It is a flowchart-based modeling tool. Thus, automation is faster and more convenient. Multiple people can contribute to the same workflow. The presence of a visual signal that points out errors in the model, and a recorder that performs what the user executes, make modeling much easier.
UiPath Robot runs the processes designed in UiPath Studio. It works in both attended (working only on human trigger) and unattended environments (self-trigger and work on their own).
UiPath Orchestrator is a web-based platform that runs and manages Robots. It is capable of deploying multiple Robots, and monitoring and inspecting their activities.
Throughout the history of human civilization, there has been many major turning points in innovation and discoveries that have instilled awe as well as fear in the minds of people, so much so that the word Luddite (used for people who were strongly opposed to the introduction of textile mills during the First Industrial Revolution for fear of losing their livelihoods) has now become synonymous with all people who are against new technologies, be it industrialization, automation, or computerization.
The buzzword today is the Fourth Industrial Revolution—the current age where technology is embedded within societies and even the human body—be it Robotics, 3D printing, nanotechnology, Internet of Things, or autonomous vehicles. This will fundamentally change the way we live, work, and interact with one another.
Technological changes and innovations are taking place today at an unprecedented pace and scope and are having an impact on many disciplines. Technological innovation has reached a stage where machines have now entered the realm of what was once considered exclusively human. For these reasons, there is a wide section of people who fear this age of Robots. While the arguments over how much of our lives will be taken over by Robots are endless, what cannot be denied is that Robots are here to stay.
There are various advantages of automation today; there are also fears surrounding its advancement, which are not completely unfounded.
As mentioned earlier, this time automation is capable of impacting a wide range of disciplines. Thus, unlike in the past where only blue collar jobs were at risk of being replaced by machines, this time even white collar jobs are believed to be at risk. While this is not untrue, reports suggest that only around 5% of the total jobs may be totally replaced by automation. For other jobs, automation will only replace a part of the job and not completely take over.
There are, of course, those jobs in the 5% category that run the risk of being completely automated. These are the jobs that are routine, repetitive, and predictable. A few examples are telemarketing, data entry operation, clerical work, retail sales, cashiers, toll booth operators, and fast food jobs.
However, like in the past, people should be able to find a way to adapt to the changes. With each generation, humans become smarter, more adaptable to change, and also progressive. Also, with automation mostly taking over routine and tedious tasks, humans are provided the opportunity to make better use of their capabilities—be it reasoning, emotional intelligence, or their creativity. What we can do is not fret over the inevitable rather prepare for it. One way of doing so is to start changing the pattern of education. The next generation should be taught how to recognize and adapt to changes quickly. An important aspect of their education should be to learn how to learn.
In this chapter, we acquired a basic understanding of RPA and the ability to differentiate it from other types of automation. We have also learned globally about the benefits of RPA and various platforms available on the market. In the next chapter, we will start learning UiPath and the recording tool, which is a quick and efficient way of implementing RPA.