Ghost in the Machine: Robotic Process Automation and the Digital Workforce Revolution

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Engineer and smart factory concept.

The manufacturing industry is in the midst of a digital renaissance, broadly known as Industry 4.0. In this age of advanced machinery and computers, companies have become increasingly reliant on automation technologies such as robotics, the Internet of Things (IoT), and artificial intelligence.

Just as physical robots revolutionized the factory floor, digitization and automation are now playing a significant role in transforming back-end systems. This digital shift is referred to as robotic process automation (RPA).

What is RPA and How Does it Work?

RPA does not actually involve physical robots, but rather utilizes intelligent software robots that are designed to mimic human thinking. According to a research report compiled by the consulting firm Deloitte, RPA is generally defined as having three essential components: developer tools, a robot controller, and the software robots themselves.

The developer tools are used to specify task parameters and establish instructions for the software robots to learn and execute. Typically designed for users who don’t have a computer coding background, these tools tend to feature easy-to-use functions such as drag-and-drop interfaces and straightforward configuration wizards.

The robot controller acts as a digital intermediary between the developer tools and the software robots. It manages communication between the tools and the robots, maintains an archive of recurring assignments and instructions, assigns jobs to the software robots, and monitors all internal activity.

Once software robots receive their assignments and learn the instructions, the robots connect directly to the business application and execute the commands.

RPA is extremely useful for handling monotonous back office systems and tasks that don’t require human judgment. When equipped with detailed instructions, this digital workforce can easily automate high-volume, rule-based, repetitive operations such as database management and order processing. For this reason, RPA is finding a home in a wide range of business areas, including finance, procurement, supply chain, customer service, and human resources.

A harbinger of lean industrial practices, RPA’s approach to addressing and decluttering the complexities of various business processes allows companies to enhance their business metrics.

To Err is Human, to Excel is RPA: The Benefits of Business Automation

Automating menial processes allows for a range of benefits, the foremost being reduced human error. While even the most disciplined, meticulous person is bound to make the occasional mistake, RPA can perform the same tasks error-free. Moreover, jobs that would take a human several minutes or more to complete can be accomplished by software robots in a matter of seconds.

Additionally, since RPA is a computerized process and not an organic being, it doesn’t get tired and doesn’t require daily rest; a digital workforce can work around the clock 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. And because the robots are designed to learn and operate exclusively within the framework of the provided instructions, minimal supervision is required.

RPA also offers a higher degree of quality control. For example, jobs that were once outsourced can now be brought back in-house, diminishing the risks often associated with external contracting. This level of control makes RPA a powerful asset for compliance regulation, security, and traceability requirements.

Highly flexible and easily scalable, RPA nimbly adapts to the constant fluctuations of the business world and can be tailored for both short- and long-term goals.

High Cost, High Yield Investment

Despite the high upfront costs required, RPA is an extremely economical solution for back end systems. In a 2016 research report, consulting firm PwC estimated that approximately 45% of work activities can be automated, with the potential for $2 trillion in global workforce savings.

Because software robots make short work of lengthy, tedious processes, more output is possible for less money, which ultimately results in a better bottom line. Plus, RPA can cut down on operational and labor costs while simultaneously eliminating the limitations imposed by labor supply and labor legislation.

Finally, RPA can also be used to develop and expand a business. When used in conjunction with big data, for example, software robots can perform complex analytics that detect current and emerging patterns. Collecting and organizing this data into actionable knowledge allows companies to predict future scenarios, develop contingency plans, and make informed decisions that will lead to a higher return on investment.

The Challenges of RPA Implementation

The biggest issue surrounding RPA is the notion that the implementation of intelligent software robots will inevitably lead to job loss for their human counterparts. But RPA actually provides companies with the opportunity to lay the groundwork for a stronger, more dynamic workforce.

Because the digital grunt work is taken out of the equation and handed off to software robots, employees are free to work on more complex, elaborate projects. With smart upskilling practices in place and communication channels open between management and staff, workers can contribute in a more valuable capacity while assisting in the expansion of business development activities.

RPA and the Future of Business Process Improvement

Implementing RPA allows companies to enhance and restructure business processes while redefining the roles of employees, ultimately allowing for both cost and time savings.

Thanks to these unique benefits — and the upward trajectory of industrial automation in general — it’s safe to assume that RPA will eventually become standard practice across all types of industries and applications.

Image Credit: metamorworks / Shutterstock.com

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