What is RPA? The basic idea – Play your cards right on RPA
RPA stands for “Robotic Process Automation” and the concept is that software robot equipped in PC automates white-collar deskwork, mainly routine operations.
In Japan, the term “RPA” has emerged in 2016 and started drawing so much attention in 2017 as people found that it was comprehensible and had a quick impact.
In these days, RPA becomes the IT buzzword along with AI and IoT and everyone is talking about RPA.
However, only very few seems to have deep understanding of RPA and many of them still remain at the stage where they cannot really tell you the differences and relationships between AI and RPA.
This report shows fundamental understanding of RPA, successful implementation of RPA, different features from AI, and effective combination with AI in a comprehensive manner.
The goal of this report is to provide readers with a general understanding of RPA which will be a promising tool for achieving cost/error reduction and giving a prompt result on our work-style innovation.
What is RPA (Robotic Process Automation)?
RPA stands for Robotic Process Automation and the concept is that software robot equipped in PC automates white-collar deskwork, mainly routine operations by rule engine and AI (artificial intelligence).
Such software robot is sometimes called “digital labor” or “digital worker” as a personification of robot.
Also, the tool which makes the RPA concept come true is called as “RPA tool”.
Currently, the term “RPA” has been used in many ways. RPA in a broad sense represents RPA innovation as a whole while it represents RPA tool itself in a narrow sense.
Definition of RPA says “equipped with technologies such as rule engine and AI (artificial intelligence)”, which we consider as the broad sense.
In the narrow sense (RPA tool itself) however, RPA works on rule engine but not equipped with AI.
WinActor®/WinDirector® developed by NTT Group has achieved the largest share in Japanese market.*
Comparison, classification, and ranking of RPA tools will be discussed in the latter part of this paper.
*According to a survey by RPA BANK
Performance of RPA
First of all, let’s see how the RPA tool actually works to automate a target operation.
This demo movie shows that the RPA tool automatically creates construction worksheet based on customer’s information filled in an excel sheet.
The RPA tool follows the steps below set up in the scenario for automation.
- Copy the customer’s information (Order No., Name, Address…) on the work schedule list and paste it to the Construction Work Sheet.
- Start Search Map application and input a target address for location map, enlarge the map, and save the target area as image and paste it to the Construction Work Sheet.
- Specify the order number as the file name and save.
- Repeat the steps above as many as the number of orders in the work schedule list.
As the demo movie shows, RPA handles PC operations almost three times as fast as humans do. In addition, RPA works 24 hours a day while humans work 8 hours a day. Think about it. RPA’s processing speed is three times as fast and working hours are three times as long as humans.
In simple calculation, RPA (digital labor) can take over manpower of 9 in terms of productivity.
Advent of RPA (Software Robot) and different features vs. conventional technologies
Let’s look at the case of industrial robot working in factory, that has become common nowadays.
※Put a number of White-collar
※Customize System (ERP)
|Production facilities (Conveyor belts)
RPA (Software Robot)
|RPA (Software Robot)
|Production facilities (Conveyor belts)
Factory consisted of three layers; large production facility such as belt conveyor was in the layer 1, industrial robots for quick and precise manufacturing operations in the peripheral, layer2, and manpower (Blue-collar) for robot maintenance and those cannot be done by robot.
On the other hand, office consisted of only two layers; infrastructure system (ERP) in layer 1 and white-collar in layer 2. If it was hard to handle ERP, the solution was to customize ERP or increase the number of white-collar (or outsource). Then, RPA (Software Robot) came in and gave the structure of ‘Office’ most effective 3 layers. By doing so, White-collar roles have been changed from deskwork to software robot (RPA) maintenance and operations which cannot be done by robot and require human ability.
So, are there any differences between RPA tool in a narrow sense and Excel macro?
Anyone can easily create scenario (for executing robot) without programming skills, those scenarios are hard to be in “black box” as the contents are simple and easy to understand, and every application including ERP and Web can be automated; those are the features of RPA tool, but cannot be the fundamental difference between them.
Background of “RPA Boom”
What makes RPA such a powerful vehicle for us?
There are several backgrounds such as decrease in the labor force due to aging population combined with the diminishing number of childbirth or work-style innovation, but that is not good enough.
In this column, we focus on three main triggers to make RPA such a powerful tool.
RPA (Software Robot) as the concept
If you are asked “don’t you think you can do your job more efficiently?”, you might feel “I’m already taking effective ways and there is little left to be improved!”.
However, if the question is “are there anything in your operations you want robot to automatically do for you?”, your answer might be different and you will start thinking, “it would be very helpful if robot would do that for me, or it would relieve my stress if that would be taken care by robot”.
Non-programming RPA can be run by non-IT department
The use of conventional IT technology has been restricted almost exclusively to IT department and any improvements requiring IT technology must be done through IT department.
Therefore, whether or not the work request would be accepted depended on the budget or priority order of IT department. White-collar workers had to manually handle those left out or rated lower in the priority order.
On the other hand, RPA allows any White-collar workers to automate their business using IT-technology that broke down the limitation of “use of IT-technology”.
RPA is also welcomed by IT-department as RPA takes care of their burden on automation for each site on behalf.
Advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (Full automation by AI)
Currently, we are amidst the fourth industrial revolution in which the development and usage of technologies such as AI (artificial intelligence), IoT (internet of things), and RPA are ongoing. Among those technologies, RPA is becoming an increasingly popular technology as its idea is relatively simple and easier for users to measure its ROI.
Also, there is another reason why RPA is so popular. The RPA roadmap categorizes its development into 3 waves. Automation of routinized work by rule engine in wave 1, advanced automation using elements of AI in wave 2, and full automation by AI along with successful completion of AI technology in wave 3. Now, we are just entering in wave 2. Considering the projection in which 49% of labor population will be automated by the first half of 2030, wave 3 will be coming in the first half of 2030.
Unlike “IT-enabled” or other improvement activities with ambiguous goals, you know the exact timeframe that the world of full automation will be coming in 10 years.
Under such circumstances, you might realize that you need to start using RPA right away to catch the automation wave.
Features of RPA tool
In short, RPA is a software robot which records (replicates) White-collar’s routinized work to improve and automate it.
For instance, if you operate something you want to automate with PC, RPA records it as operational rules called “scenario”. Your operation will be precisely reproduced by RPA based on the recorded scenario. Recording your operations with PC is just like your giving a demonstration to newcomers.
This scenario creation doesn’t require programming-skills. Users can create and edit visualized workflow-like contents on desktop. Easy to understand for everyone is one of the features of RPA tool. This is not just about good operability or usability. This is about that anyone can create a scenario which can be understood by anyone, that enables non-IT department to handle RPA by themselves. In addition, unlike Excel macro, RPA has low possibility of producing robot whose supervisor no longer exists.
“Scenario” recorded by RPA tool is also called “Workflow” or “Robot”.
You might already heard the expression that “We created 100 robots”, meaning they created 100 scenarios (automation rules).
5 advantages of using RPA
Now, let us introduce you 5 advantages of using RPA for companies.
Automation and improvement of White-collar operations
Having mentioned the above, RPA enables users to automate deskwork operations.
The big benefit of using RPA is that anyone can easily automate and optimize routinized operations.
Improvement in Productivity
Users will have spare time for other operations by having RPA take care of routinized operations which used to be done by human, that will lead to improvement in productivity and provide users room for exploring new businesses opportunities.
Especially, improvement in productivity is a critical challenge for companies who is suffering from lack of labor forces. Introducing RPA will greatly contribute to business optimization.
Human Error Prevention
Unintentional human errors cannot be avoidable. The time in which human can stay focused is limited. Error detection tends to be difficult especially for repetitive operations.
In addition, fluctuating workload would be a burden on workers as they have to intensively deal with high volume of work within a few days every month.
On the other hand, RPA can precisely reproduce once recorded operations without worry of error. RPA is a robot who can stay concentrated forever with stable operation quality, that will greatly contribute to avoiding time loss or any errors and improving business quality.
For instance, many users report that RPA enables them to reduce hours of operation by half. It is possible for RPA to keep working at any day and time and its execution also can be controlled by your designated schedule. That means regular working hours, overtime, and holiday work are reduced by RPA, resulting in labor cost optimization.
Also, the other reported that they could achieve business optimization without spending much money on system development as RPA automated the operations which were planning to be handled by the system to be developed.
Solution to Labor Shortage
RPA also plays an important role as a solution to labor shortage. Automation of routinized deskwork by RPA will filter and clarify what should be done by human. Working seamlessly, RPA is highly anticipated as the solution to White-collar labor shortage.
RPA Case Studies
RPA case studies by operation type
This case study of RPA in a trading company shows that operations for purchasing materials are automated. RPA automates the operations through 1 to 4.
- 1. Collect PO information received from customers.
- 2. Open a vendor’s web system
- 3. Register the PO information in the system
- 4. Provide the progress status to person responsible
Before introducing RPA, data input in the system required long time with frequent errors. Moreover, a lot of waiting hours due to slow response of the system put huge burden on employees. They didn’t complain nor try to improve it because it was vendor’s system. By using RPA however, they could reduce the operating hours from 130 to 30 hours and the number of input errors also drastically reduced. In addition, employees have been relieved from the burden caused by the long waiting hours.
This case study shows that collaboration between RPA and OCR which automatically handles invoices at a trading and a distribution company, which general business companies are especially interested in.
1. Use scanner and OCR and convert invoice information into data
2. Obtain the related PO data stored in a purchasing system
3. Check if invoice data and PO data are matching
4. If invoice is identical with PO data, move on to a payment process and if not, return it to person responsible
※If it identifies mismatched data because of errors in OCR data conversion or data revised for some reason, it will send a request to person responsible for verification.
5. Register PO information in a system
6. Reply order status to person responsible
Before introducing RPA, person responsible printed out PO data from the purchasing system and manually conducted data matching.
RPA cut the volume of data to be manually handled by 80%.
Conventional OCR is used in this case study, but the scope will be dramatically extended by the advent of AI-OCR solution such as DX-Suite.
The number of RPA use cases for Human resources is increasing. Outsourcing is difficult for this field as the information they are dealing with includes sensitive private information.
In many cases, high-wage employees manually handle the operation, so a huge introduction effect can be expected even the target volume is not so big. In this case study, Step 2 below is automated by RPA.
1. Employees open the Human Resources management system and edit the attribute information such as employee’s address.
2. Bulk update on the internal system with the latest information registered in the Human Resources management system.
Human Resources & Payroll・Expense Settlement
You may have seen in the RPA demonstration, this case study shows that RPA automatically proceeds from step 2 to 4 to verify if employees applied commuting routes and train pass are correct.
1. Employees input their commuting routes in the expense settlement system.
2. Using a route search service and find out appropriate commuting routes based on the station name input by employees.
3. Based on the search result, verify if the applied route is shortest and cheapest.
4. If the applied route is verified, go to approval process and if not, return the application to the employee.
How to start automation with RPA
Firstly, it is important to understand that RPA is different from the conventional IT technologies or the other business improvement activities. You need to proceed automation maintaining the optimal balance with management and control.
Unlike Excel Macro, RPA has less possibility to turn to be unattended (i.e. its owner is unknown). However, it will be important to carefully consider the impact to be caused by change in target application and ensure a strong support system to deal with inquiries from RPA users. For doing so, it is necessary to develop management/control regulations within the promotion division although RPA is mainly working at each site.
However, we have to carefully determine how much we should depend on management/control regulations because too strict rules might become a disturbance in actively using RPA or make RPA a part of system development of IT department, as the conventional technologies used to be.
In order to enjoy the merits and genuine value of RPA, RPA has to be promoted reconfirming the fundamental policy which identifies the purpose and the target users of RPA introduction.
RPA introduction is mainly divided into three steps; PoC (Evaluation/Verification), Partial introduction, and Company-wide full introduction. If company is suffering from the situation in which RPA has not been widely recognized within a company, the problem might be that RPA has been deployed for the ground (end-users) directly after evaluating it in promotion or IT department instead of involving the ground on the PoC phase in the first place. Introducing RPA without involving end-users will likely end up selecting inappropriate RPA tools for actual operations, missing vendor’s technical support for end-users, or creating atmosphere in which end-users feel being forced to do by promotion/IT department. For successful introduction, it is very important to carefully hear end-users’ voice through the PoC phase to go-live.
At the initial step of introducing RPA, participating in RPA training will be a strength. RPA training will give you an idea about what RPA is and those can be automated using RPA will come up one after another in your mind. For PoC, starting from RPA training with 2 to 3 participants who come from each department is effective. Those participants will eventually become the facilitator for each department to successfully introduce RPA.
Three important things for RPA implementation
The followings are 3 important points you need to remember before introducing RPA.
Select your RPA by comparing several RPA tools to understand what they can do and its price range
Product features and prices are various among RPA tools in the market. There is no one best RPA tool for everyone as what they can do is different and what you want them to do is also different among users. In order to avoid unexpected results on RPA introduction, you need to understand each RPA tool in every aspect such as functions and services to be provided.
You also need to keep a sharp eye on UI (user interface) of each product because UI is largely responsible for usability and user experience.
In addition to the above, technical support coverage should be included in your evaluation scope.
Scope of RPA Application
Before introducing RPA, please pick up target operations to be automated. RPA can handle wide range of operations, but some operations are more suitable to be handled manually.
For instance, RPA is very good at dealing with text including specific keyword but it cannot automatically find the other related keywords or abbreviations.
If we do the same operation, we can easily recognize frequently appeared words and manually add it in scenario one by one to enhance accuracy of information to be collected.
Still, the strength of RPA remains in its processing speed and we need RPA to make things done faster with less mistakes. For making the best of RPA, a clear boundary between what should be done by RPA and what should be done by humans (manually) will further improve the quality of operation.
RPA is a tool to realize human-robot collaboration in the workplace
Some might think AI (artificial intelligent) and RPA are taking jobs away from humans. Let’s change the viewpoint a bit and reconsider what is going on.
First of all, RPA is not taking jobs away from us. RPA has been developed to give us various supports in the workplace. Having robot handle routine or repetitive operations will enable us to have more rooms to focus on activities which require your creative thinking.
That means RPA is a tool to realize human-robot collaboration in the workplace. For us, RPA is a reliable partner who can reduce our burden. RPA gives time back to you and your team. Being free from routine and simple operations, you can put energy into more value-added activities.
This is not something limited to RPA but for any tools, the key for success is to determine how to use the tool for your business in the best way possible. Amidst the fourth industrial revolution, it should not be an overstatement to say streamlining work process and improvement in productivity with RPA will bring a direct increase in profit to your company.
RPA x AI
For introducing RPA tools, it is said that “start small and grow big” is the perfect strategy. This can be applied to the larger unit or the fourth industrial revolution. Starting small, i.e. start with RPA which is relatively easy to understand and then grow big is a secure way to catch up with the revolution. This section shows you the first step of how to utilize AI starting from RPA. Please note that we are in the phase 2 out of 3 in the RPA development .
Extending the automation scope
Leveraging techniques like AI-OCR and AI, extend the scope of automation by converting written materials, images, and audio into the form that RPA can handle and doing with. That is to say, “Structure unstructured data”. Imagine that giving RPA vision called “AI-OCR” and hearing sense called “AI speaker”.
Decision-making with RPA
We’ve often been asked, “Can RPA make highly-advanced judgment as AI?” Collaboration of RPA with AI dedicated to highly-advanced judgment will make it come true. The followings are the workflow example of RPA x AI with the ability to examine credit check.
- 1. RPA transfers income-related information to credit-check AI.
- 2. Credit-check AI will make a judgment based on the received information.
- 3. RPA moves on to the next procedure according to the judgment made by AI (e.g. automatically start lending process)
In the future, the number of AI tools designed exclusively for a special purpose will be increasing. RPA will be able to automate more complicated operations by working with such AI tools just as designating AI who is good at screening as an advisor for RPA robot.
Now you have the ideas about RPA, what the concept of RPA is and what benefits you will have on its introduction. RPA will bring you various benefits including improvement in productivity, cost saving, and solutions for labor shortage.
Consider implementation of RPA as your reliable business partner who supports not only daily operations but also greatly contributes to your work-style innovation.
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