From the assembly line to modern robotics to AI-driven office software, robotic process automation (RPA), under a variety of names, has been a consistent part of industry since the early 20th century.
Anxieties and fears over computers taking blue-collar workers’ jobs and putting hard times on their families have abounded for decades. It’s found its way into pop culture as well, with works like The Jetsons or WALL-E showcasing worlds where repetitive work is taken up by AI to varying degrees of benefit to the human race.
But how effective or detrimental is the concept in practice? What’s the current state of RPA in the UK? What are companies doing to make the future easier? Is humanity mere days away from being able to watch robotic prize fights like in Hugh Jackman’s classic Real Steel? Well, we’re already sort of there actually, but they could be bigger. Regardless, let’s take a look at the current state of RPA in the UK and see how it’s doing.
What Is RPA?
Put simply, RPA is the use of software powered AI or machine learning to perform repetitive tasks. A common reason cited for their use in the world of business is that they can increase efficiency and reduce the chance of human error jamming up the process.
A common way you might have come across RPA in your day-to-day life is the use of the chatbots to perform basic customer service functions, but companies are using RPA to automate payroll processing, automatically generate balance sheets and other financial documents, and other simple office processes.
The efficacy of these measures depends on the company. For example, chatbots, while available 24/7 unlike their human counterparts, often lack the range of comprehension or knowledge-base needed to accurately diagnose and solve whatever issues a customer might have. You also can’t just turn it on and stop worrying. Just as humans need rest and other accommodations to do their job well, AI needs ongoing maintenance, training, and updates to continue functioning.
RPA in the UK
There are a few names doing some interesting work with RPA out there, but most of them are international instead of homegrown to the UK. IBM, of course, is a major name in the RPA space. Other big names in the scene include American firms Kofax and Automation Anywhere, as well as Romania’s UiPath, which closed its IPO in April 2021.
Despite the relative lack of famous names, RPA is benefitting from the UK’s tech boom as much as any other tech industry. Firms like RoboCloud, Robiquity, and EnterpriseRPA are providing RPA solutions to a variety of industries including waste management, financial services, telecoms, government, healthcare, and more.
Outside interests have noticed the talent present in the UK’s RPA scene as well. In late June 2022, Kofax acquired London-based B2B e-invoicing firm Tungsten Network for an undisclosed amount. Automation innovators Blue Prism, who are headquartered in Warrington, was acquired by American firm SS&C Technologies for $1.6 billion (£1.25 billion) in March 2022.
How Effective Is RPA?
Overall, the state of RPA as a field of industry is looking quite nice, but making money and providing effective results are not the same thing. So let’s take a quick look at how RPA can be effective for a business.
As with AI in general, RPA works best in simple, repetitive scenarios with clearly-defined inputs and outputs and rules for the AI to work off of, such as invoice processing or employee onboarding and offboarding, and it will be effective in those scenarios as long as you take steps to keep them working in only those scenarios. If used properly, it very well can be an impressive cost-saving measure.
However, it’s important to be mindful of your business’s IT capabilities. RPA requires maintenance and support to function, and if your business’ IT team isn’t able to meet the technology’s needs, RPA could become a bit of a money sink as you hire more specialists to keep it running.
Like the expert systems which helped bring about an AI boom in the 1980s, it can be very easy to look at what RPA does and see it as a sort of wonder technology, bringing about sweeping change in the world of business. AI in general can have this effect on people, but it’s important to remember that RPA, like any other piece of software, is a tool. And tools are at their best when used only for the tasks they were designed for.
So in terms of actual efficacy, RPA isn’t exactly bringing us any closer to The Jetsons’ robot maid Rosie or Terminator’s all-powerful Skynet, but in the right use cases and for the right businesses, it can be a solid tool to keep a company’s processes running smoothly.
Sadly however, my dream of the halcyon day where I can watch a robot give another robot a German Suplex is far off. Just kidding, it already happened in 2016.
Looking for something? Check out ‘Best RPA Software and Tools in the UK’ here