What is RPA?

Robotic process automation (RPA) is a form of business process automation based on software robots.

A business process or business method is a collection of related, structured activities or tasks by people or equipment which in a specific sequence produce a service or product (serves a particular business goal) for a particular customer or customers. Wikipedia

Software robots complete the business processes in a way a person would. Only faster and typically with fewer mistakes.

Some business processes might require a person to complete several manual operations over a multitude of systems.

Often these steps can be described and documented comprehensively in a list of actions to take to complete the process from the beginning to the end.

Robotic process automation can be applied to automate those documented actions in a way that they can be completed automatically by software robots.

Examples of activities in business processes

Here are some examples of possible activities or tasks involved in a typical business process:

  • Inputting information from data source A to system B (e.g., from Excel sheets to an SAP system)
  • Processing forms (which can include multiple data sources)
  • Sending information via email or SMS
  • Archiving data
  • Moving data between systems
  • Using systems with no application programming interfaces (APIs) via a user interface (e.g., mainframe computers)

Typical systems involved in business processes

The following are some examples of possible systems involved in a typical business process:

  • Web-based systems
  • Microsoft Windows applications
  • Various ERP systems like SAP
  • Citrix / virtualized systems
  • Mainframes / miscellaneous systems (like Oracle forms-based applications)

Typical data sources used in business processes

The following are some examples of possible data sources used in a typical business process:

  • Excel
  • Email
  • Word / text documents
  • Databases / APIs (SQL, NoSQL, JSON)
  • PDF-documents (structured data source)
  • Unstructured data source (images with text, scanned documents, etc.)

What does the future of RPA look like in the next decade?

A decade is a long time to predict and RPA is a relatively new and evolving industry. But RPA has definitely proven its value and will continue to grow fast. Some of the early hype will settle down in the coming years, and the technology landscape will become richer, with some of the big early players fading to the background.

RPA started out as a business user-focused domain, but as applications of RPA become more high-impact and business-critical, we start to see more developer-oriented tools emerging. With these developer tools, RPA implementation is becoming more of a domain for software robot developers, not as much for casual business users. Software robot developers want to embrace all the best practices of developers, so sharing and reusing code becomes a normal way of working.

As open-source RPA tools mature, software robots become a commodity that every organization is eventually able to use. It will soon be hard to justify license-costs for individual software robots when the technology for creating them is available for free on GitHub. With this change, the role of the software robot developer will be in high demand, as RPA starts coming available for new kinds of use-cases and broader audiences. Cloud orchestration will be a driver in this development as well since only a handful of users will be willing to invest in operating their own orchestration services, when the same solution can be purchased easily from the cloud.

With widely available RPA developer tools and cloud orchestration, we will see the beginning of the next wave of RPA adoption. Small and medium-sized enterprises will look for ways to incorporate business automation tools but without their own dedicated IT employees. A market need will arise for a new service provider: robotics-as-a-service (RaaS) operator. RaaS operators will claim a segment of the market, with some operators focusing on specific verticals and others being general automation service providers.

Over time, larger companies that are already using RPA will look for more ways to use automation tools to be increasingly more efficient, with the traditional practice of outsourcing operational tasks to low-cost regions being replaced by an abundance of in-house RPA developers. This practice, known as Robosourcing, will see software robot developers automating work and outsourcing tasks to robots to help improve employee efficiency and increase job satisfaction.