RPA Series – Part 1: What is Robotics Process Automation (RPA) and how is it different from BPM / Workflow Systems?

Robotics Process Automation is considered to be one of the top 10 technologies that is expected to see significant adoption in next 1-3 years. However, Robitics Process Automation like every other new technology is misunderstood in terms of both what it comprises of and what its applications could be.

Robotics has been around in manufacturing industry for decades. Sometimes visible as Robots or sometimes as automated machines performing tasks such as welding and assembly on conveyor belts in manufacturing plants or even managing (receiving, storing and issuing) raw materials, components and finished goods in warehouses.

Robotics Process Automation (RPA) applications are a cousin of Robotic Automation that we see in the manufacturing. While applications of RPA are new in business domains, RPA has been prevalent in IT industry for many years now. Automated Functional Testing, Load Testing & Regression testing in the software development process are indeed applications of RPA.

Robotics Process Automation involves software robots performing tasks interfacing with software systems, which are otherwise performed by human operators or workers.

Examples of simple tasks could be: Performing data entry from text or excel files, downloading or uploading data or reports, comparing or reconciling data downloaded from 2 systems, pay-outs calculations by collecting data from multiple systems, etc.

Robots can perform complex tasks too with the aid of AI too. The example of such tasks could be Data entry from an handwritten application form, reading data from engineering drawings and maintaining bill of materials in the system, identifying KYC docs and extracting KYC data from the documents and entering in the system, collecting data by BOTs in voice or text chats and then entering them in the system.

RPA and BPMS / Workflow Systems:

Many times RPA is confused with BPM or Workflow technologies. Perhaps, the word “Process” in RPA causes that confusion.

A business process is a series of tasks or activities performed in order to produce an output. These tasks could either be manual or automated. Till the advent of RPA, automated or integration tasks used to be typically updation of data in transactions systems either through direct database updates or through API / Services. BPMS / workflow systems thus allowed organisations to IT enable & stitch-together  (or orchestrate) a business process end-to-end consisting of human and automated tasks. Thus using BPMS / Workflow systems, organisations could ensure end-to-end execution of the business process. These systems gave visibility to the processes so that process productivity and efficiency could be monitored and intervened wherever necessary. On the other hand, RPA typically addresses and automates human tasks within the process. RPA does not automate or integrate a process end to end.

BPMS and RPA can co-exist. Wherever necessary, RPA can become an important element within the process orchestration infrastructure such as BPMS or exist as an independent component in the Enterprise IT Landscape.


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