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What is Robotic Process Automation (RPA)?

This article was written by Jess Munday, Content Marketing Analyst at MuleSoft.

Fifty-three percent of organizations have already started their robotic process automation (RPA) journey, according to a survey conducted by Deloitte Digital. RPA has been dubbed one of the fastest-growing software categories by more than 200%. Significant buzz is generating around the topic — and if you’ve made it to this article you may be wondering, what is RPA and how does it work?


What is RPA and how does it work?

Robotic process automation (RPA) is a software technology that combines robotics and automation to perform repetitive tasks. RPA is a method for business process automation that uses an application or ‘bot’ that replicates an employee's desktop actions by interacting with an interface in the same way a human would.

RPA tools can record users performing repetitive tasks and generate a script that the software robot follows to perform said task. Oftentimes, the script that this bot creates is based on the clicks, entries, movements, and overall actions that the user performed on the screen. The RPA bot will then follow the script to repeat those steps — capturing data and manipulating the applications and systems just like the human would.

 

Common use cases for RPA

RPA is used across industries to automate repetitive business tasks. Most often these use screen scraping as well as other automation techniques to move data from one system or application to another or perform an action. 

Because RPA is mainly used for tedious, manual tasks — it is commonly used in roles, functions, and business units that spend significant time on these types of processes. RPA is most valuable when there is a high volume of repeatable tasks, when the task is important but does not directly generate revenue, and when it frees up valuable time for employees to work on more value-driving tasks.


Some examples of RPA use case include:

  • Manual data entry and manipulation (e.g. CRM updates)
  • Employee or partner onboarding 
  • Reporting and data aggregation
  • Document generation
  • Payroll processing 
  • User configurations
  • Invoice and payment processing
  • Order processing and shipping notifications
  • Resume and candidate verification
  • Expense management
  • Loan, claims, and appeals processes
  • Inventory and supply management


Benefits and challenges associated with RPA

As the market for RPA technology grows, IT leaders are becoming increasingly interested in its ability to eliminate repetitive work, streamline operations, and provide cost savings. With any new technology, benefits and challenges come with implementation. Below are some of the most common for each:

Benefits

  • Efficiency: RPA is known to increase productivity for enterprise employees as they spend less time on repetitive tasks. Gartner has found that 30% of a full-time employee’s overall time can be saved with RPA. 
  • Accuracy: Data entry tasks are often done more accurately with automation than if they were done manually. RPA tools can also be in 100% compliance with industry and organizational policies.
  • Cost savings: As employee productivity increases, the organization saves money. Employees are doing more, higher-value work with the same amount of time. 
  • Access to legacy technology: Organizations still using legacy technology often struggle to integrate these tools with other cloud-based systems. RPA provides an easy entry point via the user interface to get data to and from legacy systems.


Challenges

  • Displace human workers: One of the biggest criticisms of RPA and other automation technology is its potential to eliminate the need for data entry and clerical-style roles.
  • Lacks intelligent capabilities: RPA as a standalone technology can only perform tasks that it can copy from a script — lacking the ability to learn and improve the script it’s performing. The next generation of AI and intelligent automation tools are now being introduced to address this pitfall of RPA.
  • Project complexity: Transformative RPA projects tend to be complex and require a time commitment to see the return on investment — as a result, some RPA projects fail before the value is realized.


RPA and API-led connectivity

Many people often think that RPA and APIs compete with one another — seeing as APIs allow the systems and datasets to be integrated while RPA scraps the data from one system to another. However, there are situations where an API-led approach could collaborate with RPA as a mechanism to broaden the scope of integration and enable access to more endpoints. 

Where business process automation is not yet possible for an API-led approach, RPA may be used. Some examples of this are:

  • A system lacks an API, such as a legacy or on-premises application or a system that is heavily customized for the organization. 
  • There is either delayed investment or lack of investment in the creation of an API for an endpoint — where RPA can be used as a stopgap for temporary access to the system. 
  • There are different teams managing automation and integration


MuleSoft is now a partner with two leading RPA companies to make it even easier to automate repetitive tasks and unlock data from legacy UIs. To learn more about this partnership, read this blog.

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