Our users want to explore different topics about RPA tools, what are you interested in:
- Learn about different types of RPA tools including their advantages and limitations
- See the full list of RPA tools
- Read our approach to compare different RPA vendors and identify the right one for your business. [Separate article] I would recommend reading that if you are already trying to decide between one or two vendors.
- If you don’t know much about RPA, you may need an intro before we explain the different RPA tools in detail. If that’s the case you can check out our great guide for that or get our whitepaper:
Types of RPA tools
Each RPA tool has 3 core functionalities:
- A bot that interacts with other systems via screen scraping or API integrations
- Decision system used by the bot to determine its actions based on inputs it gathers from other system
- An interface to program the bot
There are 3 types of RPA tools that each build on previous generation of bots to extend one of these core functionalities:
- Programmable solutions that interact with other systems for the basis of RPA bots and allow them to interact with other systems
- Intelligent/cognitive automation tools allow RPA tools to handle unstructured information and make decisions based on complex, unstructured input. Read our cognitive automation article for more info.
- Self-learning solutions that allow RPA tools to program themselves
1- Programmable RPA solutions: Doers
The simplest and oldest tools in the market. They interact with different systems via integrations and screen scraping, allowing RPA tools to perform actions like a white-collar employee.
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.
- 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.
- 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
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.
- 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:
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 software 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:
- UiPath Community Edition’s Forum is like Stack Overflow for UiPath with quick response times and detailed tutorials.
- Workfusion’s RPA Express has free online courses for beginners.
- Similarly Automation Anywhere University offers online training.
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. We have an article on RPA training where we collect RPA training resources.
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 non-Windows operating systems such as Mac OS or Linux. This is not a major problem most of the time because a majority of human dependent company 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.
- Reliance on programmers: While bots are relatively easy to program, they still need to be programmed by tech-savy personnel. Enterprises solve this problem with several measures:
- Enterprises are founding centers of excellence (CoE) where they gather RPA talent who help departments with their automation efforts and guide them in their RPA journey
- Enterprises outsource programming to RPA implementations specialists or other consultants
- 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- Cognitive automation: Decision makers
Cognitive automation (also called smart or intelligent automation) is an emerging field that augments RPA tools with artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities like optical character recognition (OCR) or natural language processing (NLP). Cognitive automation is the future of RPA. It deals with both structured and unstructured data including text heavy reports.
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 business 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:
3- Self-learning solutions: Learners
Programmable RPA solutions interact with other systems but programming them is a significant undertaking and is the primary job to be automated to enable faster RPA roll-out. Self-learning solutions program themselves.
There are various approaches to learning for RPA tools:
- Using historical (when available) and current data, these tools can 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.
- Employees can use the tool as they complete tasks in the manual manner as they used to. As tasks are completed, tools learn the necessary activities and start automating them. Employees provide feedback to the tool as it increases its automation levels. WorkFusion demonstrates this below:
Over time, the level of automation provide by such tools improve as demonstrated by WorkFusion:
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.
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 business 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.
Complete list of RPA tools
|Vendor||Free version available?||Pricing||Usability - Drag&drop programming||Usability - Macro recording||Selected partners||Geo coverage|
|Automation Anywhere||per process||Available||Available||Accenture|
|EMEA & North America|
|UiPath||UiPath Community Edition||per bot||Available||Available||Accenture|
|WorkFusion||WorkFusion RPA Express||per process||Available||Available||Capgemini|
|Epiance Epigenie RPA|
|Infosys EdgeVerve Systems|
|Jidoka||Based in Spain & Colombia|
|Visual Cron||45 day free trial||per server||Available|
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 AI solution providers that serve operations function including RPA solution providers .