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Robotic process automation (RPA) — a technology that enables software robots to replicate the actions of human workers for tasks such as data entry — has the potential to dramatically change the way companies approach many of their key business processes.

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It also can greatly boost the efficiency of the legacy applications that support those processes, so it should not be surprising that the technology is seeing a rapid adoption rate.

“RPA tools are not as sophisticated as the larger market but play a very important role,” said Frances Karamouzis, research vice president and analyst at Gartner. One of the benefits of most of the RPA products on the market is that they are quite heterogeneous across lots of other software applications, she says.

Gartner refers to RPA tools as “gateway technologies” or “surface tools” because they just begin to skim the surface of the larger intelligent automation services market, Karamouzis said.

“The attraction is the RPA tool just sits on top of the legacy system” such as enterprise resource planning (ERP), and there is no need for any special integration, Karamouzis said. “They’re also easy to use and have a relatively low cost. For all those reasons [RPA] has by far the highest adoption of automation tools that we’ve seen.”

Organizations that rely on labor on a large scale for general knowledge process work, in which people perform high-volume, highly transactional functions, can potentially benefit from RPA, according to the Institute for Robotic Process Automation (IRPA).

Although the scope of the technology is limited to certain tasks at this point, Gartner is advising clients to deploy the products. “It’s low hanging fruit and has a fast return on investment” because of the added efficiencies, she said.

As for concerns about how RPA impacts the employment of some workers in IT and other areas, “these tools hardly ever take away jobs; rather, they take away many hours of work, rote tasks of jobs that often remain,” Karamouzis said. Going forward, vendors in the market need to be investing in research and development to make the products more sophisticated and add capabilities that increase their value even more, such as the ability to create better workflows, she said.

In the meantime, demand for RPA tools is growing quickly, at about 20 percent to 30 percent each quarter, according to Gartner. Among the vendors providing RPA tools are Automation Anywhere, Blue Prism, EnableSoft, Kryon Systems, NICE, Openspan (a unit of Pegasystems), Redwood Software, and UI Path.

The technology can help add efficiencies to enterprise applications such as customer relationship management, ERP, supply chain management, and applications that manage functions in human resources and finance.

Some enterprise application vendors are embracing the RPA trend as part of their product strategies. For example, in September 2016, Pegasystems announced that robotic automation software is now fully available with its Pega 7 Platform for business process management and customer relationship management applications.

Earlier this year, Pegasystems acquired RPA provider OpenSpan and the technology, now called Pega Robotic Automation, was fully unified with Pegasystem’s technology portfolio in less than six months.

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