When I first heard about working on a robotics project, my initial thoughts were that I’d be involved in some kind of robot production line underpinning AI development, a la recent HBO series Westworld. While I quickly realised that my hopeful ideas wouldn’t be realised on the project, robotics process automation (RPA) is a very innovative and effective technology nonetheless that can embed ‘robots’ in an organisation to automate a variety of processes.
Thanks to advances in software and artificial intelligence, RPA has its sights on higher-value tasks than ever before—but before we get to that stage, let’s explore how companies are already deploying these systems and what impact they’re having.
Production of ‘hosts’ in Westworld; robots designed to mimic human beings
How to use RPA?
First things first though – how is it done? Once it has been established that a business process is automatable using a robotic solution, the business rules need to be captured, connectivity tests with the systems in question completed, and process flow optimised for robotic automation. Developers then code the business process into the RPA software and enable it to deal with business exceptions. It works by employing a variety of tools for grabbing digital data, which can include screen scrapping and digital image recognition. The robots employed can then process transactions, manipulate data, trigger responses, and communicate with other systems as necessary.
What to automate?
The technology is designed to perform high-volume IT support, workflow, remote infrastructure, and back-office processes, such as those found in finance, accounting, supply chain management, telecommunications, customer service, and human resources. It can also automate and improve business-process workflow by, for example, finding and organising the correct information for agents in call centres, or for data analysts in the finance department.
An interesting example of innovation in automation is Japan's Henn-na Hotel. It is fully automated, from the robot dinosaur check-in to the facial-recognition key system and the banks of vending machines that replace the dining room. Japan is at the forefront of automation, with 250,000 industrial robots, the highest number in the world. The number is expected to increase to a million over the next 15 years. Hideo Sadawe, the CEO of Huisten Bosch, which owns the Henn-na hotel, says, “Humans will focus on more creative and artistic work, so they won't lose their jobs.” He even predicts that by 2025, these robot-driven hotels will spread all over the world.
O2, for example, is automating business processes to reduce the cost of back office operations and to cut its reliance on offshore recruitment. The telco expects to save millions of pounds and get a return on investment in the first year.
And back to the project I was involved in, its aim was to automate various processes to provide better customer service. My team expanded from 7 to 30, and we have delivered 14 industrialised projects in the first eight months, with a further 30 projects either in progress or scheduled.
Robots are frequently used in the manufacturing sector as well. Industrial robot shipments are directly linked to growth in manufacturing labour productivity in the US.
Looking at those examples, the appeal of RPA is clear. Its benefits include:
- Cost reduction: software robots cost less than one third of an offshore FTE
- Speed of delivery: a process that would normally take half an hour could take less than 10 minutes if automated by a robot
- Accuracy: robots perform and repeat tasks in exactly the same way every time
- Efficiency: RPA can operate continuously without breaks (providing the underlying core applications are available)
Improved audit and greater transparency: robots can provide detailed audit logs, enabling advanced business analytics and improved compliance
The future of robotics
Automation has been around for a while but it is ever-evolving, and as we look to history to help us predict the future, we cannot deny that RPA is today’s version of outsourcing – and it’s unstoppable. Automation technologies, such as RPA, will have a potential economic impact of nearly $6.7 trillion by 2025.
Self-driving technology and chatbots are no longer things of the past. Robots are already able to automate simple, repetitive processes, and through the combination of RPA with intelligent platforms, they will soon be able to improve their own performance and make complex decisions with little intervention or programming. It’s exciting to think what will be possible in the future taking into consideration that in the second quarter of 2016, more than $1bn of venture capital investment flowed into AI start-ups worldwide. Capgemini is also supporting AI (and other!) start-ups through its global InnovatorsRace50 that offers $50k of equity free funding to a winning idea.
Automation has the potential to make companies more agile and responsive, which is crucial in today’s increasingly global and complex marketplaces. It might not be Westworld, yet, but no doubt it’s an exciting world we’re living in…