Comprehensive guide on RPA tools: Choose the right tool

Comprehensive guide on RPA tools: Choose the right tool

Sometimes people say RPA tool when they mean RPA vendor that provide RPA tools. In case you are looking for vendors, we have a detailed post on how to compare RPA vendors. I would recommend reading that if you are already trying to decide between one or two vendors.

Here, we’ll explain the different RPA tools and if you need an intro to RPA, you can check out our great guide for that. No matter which vendor you talk to, you will come across 3 distinct classes of RPA tools:

1- Programmable RPA solutions

The simplest and oldest tools in the market. Need to explicitly program the tool to perform the necessary actions to replicate a process or functionality. They work mostly with structured data in legacy systems and take advantage of legacy system integrations to complete tasks. These tools have 3 critical components:

Bot programming tools

Most tools include a visual bot programming tool that helps programmer model the process flow. For more technical users, code based bot programming interfaces are also available. UiPath Studio is an example.

Key features:

  • Macro recorders: Recording a complex set actions and having them automatically translated into a bot program facilitates programming. Most vendors offer such macro recorders.
  • Visual drag&drop programming: An easy-to-use yet flexible visual tool will allow your team to program their bots quickly yet effectively.

Orchestrators that help manage bot activity

Management console for your bots and processes. Allows you to start/stop or schedule bots, highlights issues that bots encounter and provides a dashboard for the processes that are managed by RPA. UiPath Orchestrator is an example.

Key features:

  • Business exception handling: No matter how well programmed, your bots will run into issues with the diverse data they encounter. These exceptions need to be highlighted, managed via queues and seamlessly assigned to personnel to be resolved before they lead to any bottlenecks or delays for customers in your processes.
  • Different user access levels: Several user access levels enables orchestrator to be used by different personnel for various functions.
  • Analytics capabilities: Bots will be working with legacy systems uncovering a trove of data that may not be available in other analytics modules. Capabilities to run advanced analysis and combine different data sources are critical

Bots

This is the most fundamental unit and there are already free bots offering limited functionality provided by Workfusion RPA Express and UiPath Community Edition. Robots can be run from employees’ desktops or from the cloud.

Key features:

  • Integrations: Integrations are necessary for your bot to work with your enterprise applications. Most bots in the market work with legacy applications (though coverage depends from vendor to vendor), web applications, desktop applications and other major enterprise software including SAP, Citrix, Java and mainframe applications.

UiPath explains these 3 modules in their system in detail in this video:

Training

Since these bots need to be programmed, there’s a whole industry of RPA courses and tutors. If you are aspiring to get a job programming RPA solutions, think twice before you pay for any training.  RPA companies are doing their best to make sure that their solution is the most popular among developers so there’s quite high quality free training and community support online. I would first take some free courses and then explore paid alternatives after getting familiar with the products. Some examples:

Not all RPA providers offer free public training though. For example Blue Prism’s trainings are confidential to its partners.

However, if you are already working for a partner or customer of these companies, then you can use their trainings for free to improve your skills.

Limitations

Though these tools are extremely flexible and can automate up to 40-50% of the activities in an enterprise, they have some limitations:

  • non-Windows environments: Most RPA vendors do not offer solutions for Mac OS or Linux as most enterprise processes are conducted on Windows machines
  • Reliance on programming effort: From a purely theoretical perspective, any process can be fully automated. However, as process complexity increases, programming time and cost make automation financially infeasible.
  • Edge cases: These are problematic for all automation solutions. When bots encounter cases that programmers had not anticipated, results can be unexpected. This requires auditing bots during first roll-out to ensure that such cases are encountered and fixed. However, not all edge cases can be identified during the first week of operations. For example changing market conditions can generate new cases months after bots are rolled out. This requires building a warning system and carrying out regular audits in light of changing market, regulatory or technology conditions.

2- Self-learning solutions

These tools program themselves. Using historical (when available) and current data, these tools monitor hours of employee activity to understand the tasks completed and to start completing them after they have reached enough confidence to complete the process.

Most of these tools are in beta stage. For example, UiPath includes them in their 2018 roadmap. However during our podcast with WorkFusion leadership, they mentioned that they had been using such solutions for years.

Limitations

As we all know, learning takes time and machines are no different in this situation. You may have heard about how DeepMind’s AlphaZero learnt chess in 4 hours and defeated the best chess playing computer program. So why does learning in RPA take longer?

Unfortunately, while you can play chess against yourself, you can’t run a process by yourself. There’s just too many possible inputs in a process. The key ingredient in machine learning is data and you need to feed a bot months of data for it to be an effective learner. If such data is available, that’s great. However, most of the time enterprises have access to the outcomes of a process, the structured data but the unstructured inputs are not stored for more than a month.  If that’s the case, then data collection will need to start ASAP and can take a few months depending on the specific process to be automated.

3- Cognitive automation

Cognitive automation is an emerging field, it is the future of RPA tools. Cognitive automation (also called smart or intelligent automation) deals with both structured and unstructured data. These are the solutions that get consultants and executives most excited. Vendors claim that 70-80% of corporate knowledge tasks can be automated with such tools. In comparison, first generation programmable RPA solutions are dumb and need to focus on simple, repetitive processes. To deal with unstructured data, cognitive bots need to be capable of machine learning and natural language processing. See our cognitive automation guide for more info.

Cognitive automation is the current focus for most RPA companies’ product teams. Most have videos like this where they boast of cognitive capabilities of their tools like this video from Automation Anywhere:

This is a summary of the available automation tools in the market, check out our article on RPA vendor selection for more information on the vendors offering these tools or view the most comprehensive public list of RPA solution providers.

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