Robotic Process Automation (RPA): Definition and Benefits

What Is Robotic Process Automation (RPA)?

Robotic process automation (RPA) occurs when basic tasks are automated through software or hardware systems that function across a variety of applications, just as human workers do. This can greatly reduce labor costs and increase efficiency by speeding things up and greatly minimizing human error.

The software or robot can be taught a workflow with multiple steps and applications, such as taking received forms, sending a receipt message, checking the form for completeness, filing the form in a folder, and updating a spreadsheet with the name of the form, the date filed, and so on. RPA software is designed to reduce the burden for employees of completing repetitive, simple tasks.

key takeaways

  • Robotic process automation (RPA) refers to software that can be easily programmed to do basic, repetitive tasks across applications.
  • RPA creates and deploys a software robot with the ability to launch and operate other software.
  • Designed primarily for office-type functions, RPA works like a digital assistant, doing routine onerous tasks that would otherwise eat up employees' time.
  • RPA today is found across a range of industries and applications.
  • RPA without human oversight, however, can lead to problems, as was the case with mortgage "robo-signers."

Understanding Robotic Process Automation

Robotic process automation (RPA) is designed to help primarily with office-type functions that often require the ability to do several types of tasks in a specific order. It creates and deploys a software robot with the ability to launch and operate other software. In a sense, the basic concept is similar to traditional manufacturing automation, which focuses on taking one portion of a workflow—or even just one task—and creating a robot to specialize in doing it.

Office work often requires the same sort of repetitive effort, but since it is data being manipulated across platforms and applications, a physical robot is not necessary.

While automation is often sought by companies to streamline processes and cut labor costs, there have been some instances where automation has gone awry.

Benefits of Robotic Process Automation (RPA)

The software used in process automation is programmed to do the tasks in a particular workflow by the employees with minimal assistance from human workers. The software doesn’t learn on its own or seek to tweak out new efficiencies or new insights like big data analysis or enterprise resource management (ERM) software. Instead, RPA works like a digital assistant for employees by clearing the onerous, simple tasks that eat up part of every office worker’s day.

As such, RPA is a simpler product than an artificial intelligence-driven system or enterprise software that seeks to bring all data inside the platform. This also makes it a relatively cheaper product than AI or ERM software. This simplicity and relative cheapness can make RPA a more attractive solution for many companies, particularly if the company has legacy systems. Robotic process automation is designed to be compatible with most legacy applications, making it easier to implement compared to other enterprise automation solutions.

$600 billion

Industry research suggests that the global RPA market will grow to nearly $600 billion in 2022.

Where Can RPA Be Applied?

RPA is quite common in the financial services industry. With increasing compliance and regulatory filing requirements, the finance industry—banks, insurers, and investment management companies—has been an early adopter of RPA. Many onerous back-office functions, such as ensuring an up-to-date Know Your Client (KYC) form is filed or a recent credit check is included on a loan application, are ideal for RPA. Removing this burden from employees allows them to focus on high-return tasks. More importantly, the software can clear these basic filing and data manipulation functions faster than humans, reducing the overall processing time.

Of course, RPA is not just limited to finance. Any industry that deals in data and filing can benefit from robotic process automation. When software can reduce costs and increase efficiency without requiring an onerous and complex implementation, it will find eager users and useful applications in almost any sector. Indeed, RPA has also been found useful in the following fields:

  • Customer service and CRM
  • Accounting
  • Healthcare
  • Human resources
  • Supply chain management

Challenges for RPA

RPA does, however, have its drawbacks. These systems can be expensive to customize and deploy, and may not be suitable for more complex tasks that require some degree of human judgment or creativity.

RPA systems, when unchecked, can also go awry. One example is the case of so-called "robo-signers" used in the mortgage industry. These systems rubber-stamped foreclosure documents on homeowners automatically, even when a foreclosure was questionable or avoidable. Moreover, this practice failed to meet government regulations for oversight of the foreclosure process in the mid-2010s, leading to a scandal following the housing market bubble of the 2008-09 financial crisis. Following the public exposure of robo-signers, foreclosure documents had to be manually reexamined, and the companies involved faced disciplinary action.

What Is the Goal of Robotic Process Automation (RPA)?

RPA is meant to automate and streamline certain redundant clerical processes for an organization using software or related technologies. This is meant to reduce costs while also increasing efficiency.

Does Robotic Process Automation Require Coding?

RPA systems are often tailor-made to suit the specific needs of a particular organization or firm. Therefore, RPA must be coded in accordance with the specifications and application of an individual company or process. This can make development more time-consuming and expensive than other types of automation that are more turnkey.

Is Robotic Process Automation a Good Career?

While RPA can reduce labor costs overall, those developing RPA systems remain in high demand. These include roles that range from software developers to product managers and business analysts.

What Are the Two Main Types of Robotic Process Automation?

Traditional RPA relies on hard-coding routine tasks for automation. This is still the most common form of RPA today. More and more, however, machine learning and AI techniques are being merged with RPA to allow it to do more sophisticated tasks, such as recognizing images, text, or speech; or to analyze unstructured data sets.

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  1. Gartner, Inc. "Gartner Forecasts Worldwide Hyperautomation-Enabling Software Market to Reach Nearly $600 Billion by 2022." Accessed Feb. 14, 2022.


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