Robots that drive efficiency and make processes automatic: RPA today
In some businesses, there has been a decision taken (or it’s come to pass over time) either not to use a full-scale ERP suite (enterprise resource planning) at all, or not to use every aspect of an existing ERP in every division in the organization. The reasons for this non-use vary, and while it’s certainly premature to use headlines like “The Death of the ERP” or similar, many businesses are now using RPA (robotic process automation) to join up the different platforms & solutions that are in everyday use, rather than hand off every function to a massive ERP.
So why RPA? The technology and the underlying reasons for its use tend to be pragmatic and realistic: it’s a solution that works with the range of technology and the human-driven business processes that are already in place. To bring a little detail to the picture, RPA’s advantages include:
- RPA can adapt very quickly to a department or business function “spinning up” a new service in the cloud, or in-house.
Thanks at least in part to the consumerization of IT, staff are used to deploying highly powerful and complex services in support of their work activities – just to get the job done. Whether it’s a with a specialist messaging system or a cloud-based logistics suite, RPA packages are designed to interface quickly and efficiently, often without the need for intervention by developers.
- The robotic processes automate what humans already do, but with the bonus of never making mistakes or tiring.
Relying on staff to undertake repetitive, dull tasks is a shortcut to errors and inefficient use of expensive labor. Better to allow the software in RPA to copy and paste data from platform A to database B, or process paperwork, or anything else that is a fairly mindless time drain.
- It’s quicker to reconfigure and RPA deployment to support a new function (like a seasonal marketing initiative, for example) than it is to change an element of an ERP solution.
While many ERP platforms are designed to do many tasks across the enterprise, there’s always an element of the platform’s structure dictating, to one extent or another, the ways and wherefores of its use. The virtual oil tankers of modern ERPs are slow to turn, and have their own particular methods of steering.
- ERP solutions tend to have to be supported and hand-coded to make them fit business processes, often at high cost.
Creating bespoke support in specialist areas of the business usually doesn’t come cheap with ERP. Contractors’ day-rates or development team costs are substantial, and investment on the required level may not be sensible.
- IT departments usually need to get involved in ERP changes: a small change for the benefit of HR, for example, can impact the working of different departments in unforeseen ways.
RPA solutions do their work “in the gaps” between the different platforms that run an average business. This lack of a centralized structure means they are malleable and can respond quickly to changes.
- Business processes can evolve organically and dictate where & how automation can support, rather than rigid software dictating how the organization has to work.
With RPA there is always a welcome element of being able to trial new systems, ideas and ways of working quickly and easily. If things work out, users and managers will know in short order, with very little investment required in realigning the underpinning tech. This quick-footedness drives innovation and encourages experimentation; both can be stifled by an overarching ERP solution dictating rigid working methods. The substantial investment in ERP solutions often means that inelegant processes are adopted, just so managers can be seen to be using a system.
Businesses find massive advantage in RPA, empowering business process owners who can dictate their own use of technological help: it’s easy and quick to set up, run and monitor. IT’s role shifts to the provision of security, compliance, and required structural underpinnings. Running and hosting RPA solutions brings its own challenges, and (despite the marketing claims of some RPA suppliers) IT retains a vital role in the enterprise.
Positive reactions to RPA tend to come initially from areas of a typical organization that rely heavily on manual processes, such as Finance and Human Resources (where there is also a reliance on unstructured data – see below). These areas of the enterprise are often the internal advocates for RPA, coming to the table with proven results that have changed the ways that whole departments work.
Another area where RPA can have incredible effects is in logistics and supply chain management. It’s here that RPA’s open nature is to its advantage, in interfacing with and drawing together different systems up and down the supply chain. Specialist software platforms like those found in shipping, air transport, retail, and e-commerce would be a “traditional” integration nightmare. However, RPA’s forte in API interconnections and automated data flow means that this area also is a fertile ground for very speedy business wins: efficiency gains & lowered costs as discrete systems communicate automatically in specifically designed workflow, created by the process owners at the coalface.
Here at Tech HQ, we’re considering three RPA suppliers that are addressing one of the most significant causes of manual processes in today’s businesses, one that’s slowing down expansion and innovation, and stifling staff’s creativity with repetitive tasks: unstructured data.
Technology’s challenge has always been the assimilation and treatment of information that’s unpredictable in terms of its format, position, and presentation. That means handwritten invoices, orders requested in an email body, contracts drawn up by third parties in unfamiliar syntax, and so on. In normal circumstances, unstructured data’s presence is where humans have to step in and comb through materials to draw out relevant information for input into software platforms. But today’s RPA solutions, often utilizing cutting-edge cognitive code, are capable of ferreting out the critical information, and integrating it into automated data flows.
Despite the auto-didactic nature of machine learning (ML), there will always be a role for human staff – the robots may be coming, but they’re not going to take all the jobs! ML and AI (artificial intelligence) algorithms at play in today’s next-gen RPA solutions are the first steps, at least, to reducing a decent portion of the manual undertakings that slow down business in today’s digital world.
While no single solution will suit every company, we hope that one of the following will be able to help your organization automate and drive the digital transformation of your business.
With 35 regional offices around the globe and international headquarters in Irvine, California, Kofax is a global enterprise with strong presence in Europe, the Americas and across the Asia-Pacific rim. The no-code Kofax RPA platform is specifically designed with the business process owner in mind: the company’s ethos is one that the business analyst drives change; they are the individuals in the organisation who live and breathe the company.
Kofax helps companies work like tomorrow – today. The Intelligent Automation platform helps organisations transform information-intensive business processes, reduce manual work and errors, minimise costs, and improve customer engagement. Kofax combines Robotic Process Automation (RPA), cognitive capture, process orchestration, mobility & engagement, and analytics to deliver dramatic results that mitigate compliance risk and increase competitiveness, growth and profitability to deliver an Intelligent Automation platform.
In the interactive robot building process robots are created, tested and debugged in a single design environment that means even non-technical robot builders can get up and running fast – all without writing a single line of code.
Centralised robot execution delivers greater scalability with the lowest total cost of ownership (TCO) and a minimal virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) footprint. It’s particularly effective in addressing and automating web-hosted apps, with a built-in web engine to remove the need for multiple browsers running in virtual desktops.
AI-powered cognitive document automation fully embedded in Kofax RPA applies neural networks to automate acquisition, understanding, and integration of documents and electronic information for business processes—including unstructured data like documents, emails and images. You can read more about the Kofax solution here.
Operating as a full cloud implementation, Thoughtonomy’s solution offers three pricing models, with fixed, variable and on-demand “workers” deploy-able according to your specific requirements. The key to Thoughtonomy’s uptake in the enterprise is that it uses a familiar user interface – the most significant point of failure of any piece of software is a (human) workforce not understanding how to interact with a new system.
Thoughtonomy boasts a web-portal to control communications between virtual workers (robots) and humans, and makes use of email and SMS, via gateways to ensure humans and ‘bots stay in touch. There’s also OCR and ICR capability that can extract data from documents and scanned forms; the totality ensures the platform can automate front office (customer facing) as well as back office (operational) processes.
The system self-learns heuristically, using models of human thought to learn the processes underlying the business, so the interactions between human and robotic workers become faster and more efficient, the more they’re deployed.
Users can build, test and deploy automations and set parameters for the platform to self-manage through the same web interface as the robot-building process, and users can review progress and workforce utilization, or download ready-made reports. There’s also access to the Thoughtonomy Object Library, a collection of automation components that help speed the build of new automations, and these can be shared among all of Thoughtonomy’s clients.
Kyron makes the vital distinction between what are known in technical terms as server-side and client-side robots, AKA unattended or attended workers. The latter usually involve interaction with human colleagues, with staff triggering robotic processes after or during manual input.
Unattended robots, conversely, can be left to continue with automation on their own, and are usually triggered by the arrival of data in a particular application or database.
The company’s platform deploys a range of AI-based routines to improve its performance continuously and it holds patents on its image recognition & OCR (optical character recognition) code base that underpin capture of unstructured data from contracts, forms and various types of business correspondence. The machine learning capabilities also help the integration process, with new applications’ onboarding made more straightforward with intelligent interfacing done “under the hood,” leaving business process owners to devise efficiency-driving automations.
The AI engine can interact with web-based apps in much the same way a human operator would; able to discern changes in layouts and patterns which signify new data, or status changes. Additionally, the platform works alongside installed apps in the local data center, or on workers’ desktops, like Excel. Older mainframe apps are also covered off – in short, any piece of software driving your business now can become part of a more extensive, automated system, thanks to Kyron.
*Some of the companies listed on this article are commercial partners of TechHQ