RPA: what exactly is robotic process automation?

Efficient and automated: robotic process automation (RPA) is a new trend in the area of automation and digital technology.

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‘That takes care of itself!’ In the case of robotic process automation, that refers to a trend which looks set to help shape the future of work: software robots take over simple, repetitive and time-consuming routine processes. That gives employees more time for productive, value-creating activities.

It is an experience shared by almost all SMEs: increasing cost pressure also increases the necessity of working as effectively and efficiently as possible. ‘We see that companies are constantly under pressure to secure their competitive advantage. Above all, that means they need to make full use of the potential of their experts,’ Marcel Cobussen has noticed. He is Business Development Manager for IT Services at Konica Minolta Business Solutions Europe GmbH.

RPA: software and robots work autonomously and take over routine tasks

The example of a major logistics and transport company can be used to show how and where companies can have routine everyday business tasks carried out with the help of robotic process automation (RPA).

The problem: the enterprise was confronted with an ever sinking number of orders, which was putting day-to-day business at risk. The main reason: where lorries were currently located and whether items had been successfully delivered could not be tracked.

The solution now is as follows: almost 400 software robots complete more than 1 million work steps and processes, meaning 16,000 working hours have been automated. As much as 50% of all deadlines are now met in a completely automated system without human intervention being required.

RPA only works with structured data

However, there is a decisive condition: process automation only works with structured data. ‘You can’t become a business that uses artificial intelligence if you aren’t also a data-oriented, data-driven, digitalised company,’ explains Prof. Dr Stefan Wrobel, Director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Intelligent Analysis and Information Systems, on the website of the institute.

If data is to play such a central role, it needs to be optimally structured and secure. That means that for companies who do not work in a data-oriented way, process automation currently (for now) means too big an investment. For SMEs in particular, robotic process automation can therefore be associated with high costs.

RPA: global market opportunities and ethical considerations

Nevertheless, analysts and trend researchers specialising in AI and robotics are relatively certain that the global turnover with RPA software and services will increase rapidly in the coming years. Invisible machines will already be able to work more hours than humans in 2025 according to the study ‘The Future of Workplaces 2025’ by the World Economic Forum (WEF).

‘RPA is one of the most important technologies of the year 2020 and implementation in practice is really gaining momentum,’ explains Marcel Cobussen. ‘More and more companies are recognising the benefits and the improvements that the use of mobile industrial robots in their enterprise software brings.’

So will RPA and algorithms eventually take over and automate the majority of all routine work in companies? Along the way, those responsible should not lose sight of three ethical aspects: 

  1. Robots, of any kind, whether mobile (mobile industrial robots) or invisible, should always be recognisable to humans as such.
  2. People should always know exactly what a robot can and cannot do.
  3. Humans should be able to understand decisions made by algorithms and robots at any time
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