Robotic Process Automation, a new interesting growth opportunity for quality assurance companies?
What is Robotic Process Automation (RPA)?
Robotic Process Automation i.e. RPA refers to a software robot that manipulates and controls business applications (CRM, ERP etc.) in the same way that a human would. RPA aims to replace manual, repetitive and boring human tasks, formerly performed by a human office worker. With the right set of rules and configurations, the software robot can do the same work more accurately, more consistently and faster. RPA is a good fit for processes that have repeatable and predictable interaction with IT applications. An example of this could be fetching data from multiple sources, interpreting the data and organizing it based on certain rules.
RPA is not a disruptive technology itself since it is not trying to change the underlying system, but rather mimic the end user and automate the process by applying rules on how to work and how to react in different scenarios. Especially for business processes, RPA means configuring or training a software robot to perform human task well enough that constant human supervision is not needed.
What’s the fuzz all about?
RPA has been a hot topic for the past few years. One of the biggest drivers behind this is the huge market opportunity that RPA is bringing to the table. Some case studies have indicated that RPA could automate up to 30-35% of back-office processes in certain companies (1). Moreover, the typical cost saving per process could be up to 30% (1 & 2). If RPA is able to live up to these expectations, the market potential globally is forecasted to be around 16 billion USD in less than 10 years (3). In comparison, the market size in 2015 was 125.2 million USD (3).
Like with all automation, also RPA is aiming to demonstrate cost savings and speeding up business processes since robots don’t need to have coffee breaks, the work can be scheduled beforehand and done precisely when needed. Furthermore, appropriately configured robot can perform the required task more accurately and consistently than a human worker and thus the output will be more predictable and easier to measure and control.
In addition, companies can measure and apply analytics for the processes and through the analytics learn how to improve the processes even further. Lastly, with human workers the scalability is limited, but with the robots one is able to scale up operations us much as one likes. This creates a huge opportunity for companies growing with rapid pace.
Similarities of RPA and Test Automation
At first glance, one might think that there are not that many similarities between RPA and Test Automation. However, the fundamental logic behind these two is the same. For example, when thinking about GUI Test Automation, the automation engineer receives a test case to be automated where the “process” or the steps of the test case are documented and step by step, the automation engineer will automate the test case based on the rules defined in the test case. In RPA, the business process is defined and documented in a similar way that can be automated using the set of rules and steps.
As in test automation, also RPA requires different types of expertise profiles. The technical part will be the development and configuration of the robot to interact with defined applications. However, the actual automation of a business process can be done by a knowledge worker with limited or no programming skills and with suitable training. Yet again, this is similar in test automation, where automation developers are taking care of the technical part and test engineers are using their domain and business knowledge to automate the actual test cases.
How about RPA tools?
As we all know there are various tools for test automation from licensed products to open-source frameworks. RPA tools are built on the fundamental idea of test automation tools and taking it a bit further by allowing people with limited programming knowledge to use the tools to automate complex business processes based on defined rules on how to execute the process. Some of the tools even use simple drag and drop type of approach to combine different functions to be put together.
Today, all RPA related tools that I investigated were licensed and so far, no widely adopted open-source solutions existed (please let me know, if I’m wrong!).
Below you can find four most popular RPA tools to check:
Common for all these tools is that they are licensed and the implementation of these tools is not cheap in any ways. In addition, RPA tool companies market their tools saying that they are so easy to use that almost everyone will be able to use them after few weeks of training. As we have already learned from test automation tools, universal solutions for all companies and software applications do not exist and even the most sophisticated tools need to be tailored for more suitable purposes. Therefore, at least from our experience, automation efforts always need technical, code level expertise, especially if we want to reach a sophisticated and the most suitable solution for the system under test.
For the sake of flexibility and cost, we at VALA have been using open source test automation frameworks such as Robot Framework for quite some time. This allows us to build the most suitable automation solutions for our customers with no extra investment in the license of a tool. Therefore, I have a hunch that the same kind of trend might hit RPA tools in the future. Already now, Robot Framework could be used in automation of business processes if so designed, since it provides the needed techniques to interact with the GUI elements and mimic end user of great variety of applications.
From Quality Assurance to Quality and Automation
RPA is still a developing area and we haven’t yet seen the full potential and how it will transform the way of white collar work in the future. However, if we think about the current situation in test automation market, we are already lacking competent people with the right set of skills. Therefore, one of the biggest challenges for our company in upcoming years is to 1) attract the right type of people to support our growth 2) offer professional development opportunities for our current personnel to keep up with the ever-changing technologies and tools in the IT world.
The situation was acknowledged in our company’s new strategy for 2020 and based on our predictions for the future we are now establishing an Automation Center of Excellence to foster our current capabilities in automation, but more importantly support the professional development of our greatest asset, the personnel. Our aim with this is to enhance information and knowledge exchange inside our company and eventually create a path that helps people to grow professionally into more demanding tasks in Test Automation, SW Automation and RPA.
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