A magic button to automate away the tedium of workplace tasks is the promise of robotic process automation, a smart set of tools that deploys AI and low-code options to simplify workflows and save everyone time while also adding safeguards that can prevent mistakes.
Most organizations have large chunks of dusty software that work perfectly well but require business users to spend their days clicking on the same boxes in the same pattern and waiting for the same screen to refresh. RPA tools are meant to replace that tedium, adding a new layer that deals with repetitive tasks without having to reinvent the old code at the core.
RPA also integrates new AI algorithms into these old stacks. Many RPA platforms offer computer vision and machine learning tools that can guide the older code. Optical character recognition, for example, might extract a purchase order from an uploaded document image and then trigger accounting software to deal with it. The ability to suck words and numbers from images are a big help for document-heavy businesses like insurance or banking.
The biggest benefit, however, may be how RPA tools are “programmed,” or “trained” — a process by which the platforms’ robots “learn” watching business users click away. This job, sometimes called “process discovery,” can use a click stream to imitate what your users just did — similar to how spreadsheet macros can be created.
Still, RPA isn’t automatic. There is a notable amount of manual intervention and tweaking necessary during training. Sometimes code must be written to handle what can’t be achieved by a preconfigured bot. But you won’t have to do very much of this. Moreover, the bots keep getting smarter, making training easier and edge cases less frequent. AI routines can also help look for patterns that may speed up the bots in the future.
The RPA marketplace offers a mixture of new, purpose-built tools and older tools that have been given features for adding automation. Some began as business process management (BPM) tools and expanded with new features to take on some of the work. Some vendors market their tools as “workflow automation” or “work process management.” Others distinguish RPA from “business process automation” by saying that RPA includes more sophisticated AI and machine vision routines.
If you’re ready to welcome robots into your workflow, here are 21 of the top RPA tools, as well as some open source projects to check out.
Appian acquired Jidoka in 2020 and changed the product’s name to Appian RPA while integrating it with its Digital Process Automation suite. Jiodka is a Japanese term that might be translated as “automation with a human touch,” a reference to how its software robots are trained to emulate humans interacting with the standard systems — mainframe terminal, web, databases, and so on. Appian RPA’s low-code integrated development environment (IDE) encourages fast creation of custom bots, while the dashboard tracks all the operating robots and can create a video of the screen to help debug the bots deployed across Appian’s cloud.
- Major features: Java-centric bots offer cross-platform range
- Major use cases: Client management and compliance paperwork processing
The Bot Store at Automation Anywhere offers a collection of tools that perform standard clicking and tracking as well as processes that glue together complex data files that float around the internet. There are bots for extracting information from spreadsheets, files, or web pages, and bots for storing this information in databases for issue tracking, invoice processing, and more. Many of the bots rely on APIs such as Microsoft Azure’s image analysis API. They also offer a “community edition” that is free for small businesses with a limited workflow and a cloud-based service, saving you the trouble of installing and maintaining the RPA itself.
- Major features: A robust process discovery methodology and a focus on making artificial intelligence usage more intuitive and automatic
- Major use cases: Customer and user-facing tools: A new enhanced version of the Resume Screener bot, for instance, is useful for human resources and recruitment
The bots at AutomationEdge are said to offer “hyperautomation” through a mixture of classic API interaction and the sophisticated AI found in bots such as the “CogniBot.” The focus is interacting with web pages, databases such as SAP, and Excel spreadsheets. The AI helps manage chatbots connected to customers through a chat session. Many of the bots in the bot store are preconfigured for specific industries or sections of a business, such as human resources or customer relations. AutomationEdge also offers a free version that’s limited in time, steps, and reach. Some AI-driven options such as CogniBot aren’t included. A cloud-based service is also available for those who don’t want to install it.
- Major features: Excel automation for spreadsheet interface; legacy system integration such as SAP and other mainframe tools
- Major use cases: Chatbot management; front-, middle-, and back-office document processing
Blue Prism, one of the earliest RPA companies that began in 2012, pushes “intelligent automation” that mixes more AI into the process to simplify scaling and adaptive processes. The emphasis is on using AI and machine learning to smooth the way the bots behave over time. You string together a sequence of actions at the beginning, but then each action generates statistics that can be used to train and improve the choices made. The company also maintains a digital exchange where third-party plugins and add-ons can be purchased to extend the powers by creating connections with traditional databases such as MySQL, larger providers such as AWS, and social media outlets suc as Twitter.
- Major features: Big investment in AI, including machine vision and sentiment analysis; the Decipher feature in Version 7 offers more options for detecting and extracting structure from scanned documents
- Major use cases: Differentiating customer experiences by integrating more data sources; compliance and data integrity
The RPA Designer from Cyclone is a low-code option for integrating multiple tools into a cohesive, automated workflow. Effective OCR and machine learning from the AI designer can help, and Mobile Designer tackles workflows that require the use of mobile platforms. The bots can run locally or in Easy Work, Cyclone’s cloud option.
- Major features: Built for the Chinese market with plugins tackling major platforms and services
- Major use cases: A wide range of markets, including mobile
TruBots, the name Datamatics gives its individual programs, are created with TruBot Designer, a tool that enables you to create and edit the software. It begins by watching keystrokes and mouse clicks with a “Universal Recorder.” Much of the work can be accomplished by dragging and dropping components in a visual designer, but developers can also adjust the system-generated code in an IDE. The bots can be coordinated with TruBot Cockpit, and the system emphasizes text processing with special tools for scanning images (TruBot OCR) and making sense of unstructured text (TruBot Neuro). The TruBot Personal application can also be installed on your own machine for handling more personal tasks, something Datamatics calls the “democratization of RPA.”
- Major features: Integration with AI for OCR and language analysis; mainframe integration; desktop version
- Major use cases: Chatbot and call center support; desktop automation
The AssistEdge system helps build out your data processing infrastructure by integrating with major data sources and tracking users to discover common work patterns with AssistEdge Discover. Call centers and customer help portals can use AssistEdge Engage to automate the repetitive tasks of orchestrating multiple legacy systems. When possible, EdgeVerve lean on AI to provide contextual help and process incoming forms and other data. The machine vision system, for instance, offers OCR to speed form processing. The company also works closely with Finacle, a major provider of banking software. It also offers migration from desktop to a cloud solution, as well as an open source community edition.
- Major features: Open source community edition; tighter integration with AI for contextual and visual processing
- Major use cases: Financial transactions, digital agents, manufacturing
The RPA tools from HelpSystems tackle a range of business tasks from responding to inquiries to generating reports. The core Desktop Automation tool can scrape data sources and interact with distant web applications and local software by simulating events in the Windows GUI. There’s a special emphasis on Microsoft Office tools to produce many of the reports, both textual and graphical, consumed while managing a business. Larger jobs that span multiple desktops can use Automate Plus and Automate Ultimate for added scale. Document scanning is done with Automate Intelligent Capture. All integrate security and audit capabilities to help managers after development.
- Major features: Integration with Microsoft desktop applications
- Major use cases: Claims processing, service industries
IBM offers a wide range of options for automating menial tasks, split into separate products, and bundled under the umbrella of IBM Cloud Pak for Business Automation. Information enters the pipeline through IBM Data Capture, flows through paths defined by Business Automation Workflow, where its final resting place is decided by IBM Operational Decision Manager. Teams can iterate over the workflows and explore hypothetical strategies with the Processing Mining tools. All the software can be deployed locally or in IBM’s cloud.
- Major features: Deep experience with enterprise workflow; integration with many mainframes
- Major use cases: Data capture, scientific process management; business decision automation
ImageTech Systems makes Kofax, a set of bots that can suck data from standard file types (Excel, JSON, CSV, email, etc.) and act on it. One of the nicer features is the Robotic Synthetic API, a nod to the traditional ways of programming. Code written in Java, Python, or another programming language can give the bots instructions, making it easier for your regular stack to interact with the RPA. The bots can also be spun off into smaller tools called Kapow Kapplets that handle focused chores locally. All the behavior is tracked with standard analytics and reported through a dashboard so you can watch for robotic glitches.
- Major features: Integration with enterprise content management tools; microapps platform to simplify deployment
- Major use cases: Managing content collections; data pipeline integration
There are two parts to the Kryon RPA. The first “discovers” the process by recording everything while running quietly in the background on employees’ desktops. (Some applications and websites can be excluded for privacy.) These automatic trails can then be edited in Kryon Studio to fine-tune the actions. The resulting code can be either fully automated, as an assistant for humans, or in “hybrid” mode, which is something in between. Kyron’s tools also include AI for extracting numbers and letters from images and more sophisticated machine learning algorithms for optimizing the process over time. Integrating discovery, analytics, and deployment is something Kryon calls “full cycle automation.”
- Major features: Process “discovery” for tracking workflow; hybrid automation mixes automation with assistance
- Major use cases: Call center support; document processing
Laiye is another platform emerging from the Chinese marketplace to target retail groups and others with extensive customer requirements. It integrates a chatbot and some intelligent document processing to provide integrated intelligent automation solutions.
- Major features: A strong focus on Chinese retail for call centers and other customer support vectors
- Major use cases: Call center support; chatbot assistance; retail support
The Power Automate tool from Microsoft is part of the company’s Power platform for creating apps, virtual agents, and business intelligence reports. The Power Automate Desktop tool focuses on automating common Windows 10 (and higher) operations. The user-friendly interface enables everyone to track their workflow and then convert it into an automated routine that can be edited. Microsoft distinguishes between “attended” operations that can help the user speed through work and “unattended” results that build bots that run in the background. The Power Advisor tool can track statistics about performance to locate bottlenecks and other issues.
- Major features: Focus on Window 10 platform
- Major use cases: Broad, enterprise-wide empowerment
The NICE robots are designed to run as supervised assistants for humans or, if they’re competent enough, as unsupervised back-office tools. One assistant, NEVA, is billed as a friendly assistant and “workforce multiplier” for every customer service rep juggling problems. The Scene Composer for the Real-Time Designer can track how clicks and keystrokes interact with web pages. Data from other sources can be gathered through Connectors to standard back-office sources such as SAP, Siebel, and .Net servers. The tool follows a workflow that unfolds until the task is completed.
- Major features: Integration between desktop assistants and server-side backend
- Major use cases: Speeding workflow by creating robots that first learn by assisting humans before graduating to full autonomy in the back office
For document-heavy processes that may require signatures, Nintex’s collection of RPA bots includes tighter integration with Office365, Salesforce, and Adobe tools. Users may feel like they’re working with real paper, but the work is done digitally and the flow is managed by the tool. Nintex calls these “logic-driven documents.” You can also automate standard data sources if you don’t need to produce “documents.” The larger group of products from Nintex includes sophisticated process mapping for discovering just what is happening and process optimization using analytics to identify bottlenecks and slow spots.
- Major features: Tight integration with dominant desktop tools
- Major use cases: Desktop automation; financial and compliance tracking
NTT-AT’s WinActor was built to save Windows users’ time by automating the most common steps. It integrates with the major Microsoft tools (Office 2010 through 2016, Internet Explorer 11) to build sophisticated workflows by recording the actions of human users. These are turned into scenarios, and users can trigger these scenarios when a new event occurs such as the arrival of an email. A new request for information, for instance, can be turned into a qualified lead for the sales database with a few clicks. The newest addition offers a “Talk Option” that integrates chatbot capabilities with the current robots.
- Major features: Heavy integration with Microsoft tools
- Major use cases: Email processing and database integration
Pega offers a wide variety of tools that speed up integration and processing for enterprises, including AI classifiers, chatbots, DevOps support tools, and pure RPA. Creating the right automation can begin with Pega’s AI-driven workforce tracking tool, a bot that installs on desktops to track how people work. This survey will reveal the bottlenecks where poor back-end processing can be automated. Pega wants to support some of the most common use cases such as reconciling financial transactions and onboarding new customers. The company also offers low-code options for business process management.
- Major features: Fully integrated with suite of enterprise tools for developing, deploying, and automating data processing
- Major use cases: Regulatory compliance and integration
Samsung SDS’s Brity RPA is split into three parts. Designer offers drag-and-drop flowcharting for both desktop and enterprise back-end legacy services through a variety of connectors. Orchestrator schedules and runs the various jobs at pre-set times or in response to events, rebooting virtual machines and simulating all events that might be generated by a real human. Bigger, more independent jobs can be split off to run in the Bot processor. Samsung is also integrating a wide variety of artificial intelligence routines (ML, NLP, visual, and analytic ) and just announced a plan to integrate smart contracts and a blockchain to the mix.
- Major features: Aimed at improving industrial and enterprise business flow through automation; a new blockchain integration will add assurance for compliance-heavy niches.
- Major use cases: Time-saving and quality improvement for enterprise-driven tasks
The XceleratorOne (aka X1) merges AI and machine learning with a BPM backbone. The drag-and-drop Design Studio offers wizard-driven solutions and the Process Recorder for capturing repetitive tasks. When the results are deployed, the system’s vertical scaling enhances parallel operations enabling multiple bots to run simultaneously. Salesforce’s Mulesoft acquired Servicetrace to bolster its position in robotic work. Traditionally Mulesoft focused on supporting APIs. The combination will produce a powerhouse for automating both user interfaces and back-end, API-based services.
- Major features: AI-based OCR and a good editor encourages development; recent merger will bolster integration with API-based workflows
- Major use cases: Banking, utilities, and other industries with heavy compliance-driven work
UiPath offers a full collection of tools for discovering workflows and turning them an autonomous processes that can be edited and tweaked. These robots are controlled by Orchestrator, which triggers them in response to events. UiPath is expanding into AI and is emphasizing machine vision tools that can extract information from images or screenshots. These are often focused on OCR to convert letters and numbers into machine-understandable forms.
- Major features: Open environment allows integration of VB.Net, C#, Python, and Java code when challenges grow
- Major use cases: Integration with full legacy stack solutions; transaction processing
The bots from WorkFusion learn their tasks on Windows machines and then go to work on a Windows server using a mixture of repetition, OCR, and some AI. The architecture is tuned to common challenges such as anti–money laundering, insurance claims and coverage decisions, and banking services. These can be starting points for anyone tackling similar workflows. The company also offers the free RPA Express Starter, which is limited to one bot running locally and doesn’t come with access to the more sophisticated machine learning bots; still, it makes a good place to experiment on easier applications.
- Major features: Desktop focus to start, with full machine learning available
- Major use cases: Email and client interaction; task routing
The major companies are generally selling proprietary tools, although community editions with limited functionality are common. Open source processes are less common but you can often accomplish many of the simple tasks by stringing together some open source projects. In many cases, you’re going to have to do much more work to train the tools yourself, often by typing code into an editor. Still, they remain an interesting option. Check out Puppeteer, Selenium, and Headless Firefox for a basic start.
- Major features: Full open source access to code; no vendor lock-in
- Major use cases: Web integration; data collection; testing and verification
Author: Peter Wayner
Peter Wayner is contributing editor at InfoWorld and the author of more than 16 books on diverse topics, including open source software ("Free for All"), autonomous cars ("Future Ride"), privacy-enhanced computation ("Translucent Databases"), digital transactions ("Digital Cash"), and steganography ("Disappearing Cryptography"). His work regularly appears in InfoWorld, and he consults on software projects big and small. The second edition of his book on robot cars, "Future Ride," is out now. Disclosure: He also writes for Hewlett-Packard's TechBeacon marketing website.