What is Robotic Process Automation?

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On December 1, 1913 Henry Ford's assembly line went live. This innovation reduced the time it took to build a car from 12 hours to roughly 1.5 hours, an 87.5% efficiency gain. This is one of the most famous paradigm shifts in modern history.

Utilizing a standardized process + worker specialization + a motorized chassis helped the the Ford Motor Company roll out their 10 millionth Model T by 1924. By the 1940s, the VP of Manufacturing, Delmar Harder, formed Ford's first automation group, developing autonomous machines for use on the production line.

Fast forward to today, almost no humans are seen on the assembly line since robotic systems were installed to relieve manual human labor and speed up production.

From assembly lines to digitization

Everything. But we still have more technology history to cover before we get there.

In the 1990's, this little thing called the internet and personal computers burst onto the scene. Almost overnight, everyone had access to a terminal to find websites, data, pirated music, etc. A new wave of companies were created that capitalized on this technology shift.

Mobile applications, SaaS, Platforms, Marketplaces became the new way of doing business over the internet. At this time, all non-tech companies were completely transformed. Email, enterprise applications, spreadsheets, and online data storage became the new way that employees communicated, worked and processed data. They moved their data to the software assembly line.

The advent of these new productivity tools created the first wave of automation. Everything started speeding up. People started moving data faster and faster with the use of ERP, CRM, and standardized protocols.

Transforming digital work into automated processes

Today, there's a new wave of productivity tools that are revolutionizing how people interact with computers.

Enter stage right: robotic process automation, or RPA. Simply put, RPA is code that can replicate the same work that people do on computers by interacting at the graphical user interface and/or API layer. These are essentially excel macros on steroids. These digital workers can run through complex workflows at lightning speed, clicking through spreadsheet filters, sending emails, and even logging in to access applications.

These digital workers add immense value by working in a business's everyday software applications:

If you're a law firm, digital workers can do work in your case management system.

If you're a healthcare company, digital workers can work in your EHR system.

If you're a sales organization, digital workers can streamline tasks in your CRM system.

These digital workers perform work faster, cheaper, and at perfect precision. But the main difference between physical robots and digital workers is that digital workers can scale much more rapidly. In order to increase capacity with digital workers, it's as simple as copying the code base and deploying a new digital worker to handle the new workload, using the durability, elasticity and scalability of cloud computing.

Some of the activities that RPA bots can perform include:

  • Read, write, and update any database or application
  • Move data from one location to another
  • Log into applications with no API, APIs, or a mix of both
  • Interact with collaboration tools like email and messaging platforms
  • Scrape data from any site
  • Use advanced analytics and machine learning to make the right decision
  • Extract and process content from documents, PDFs, emails, and forms
  • Perform mundane, repetitive tasks like copy/paste at scale

What does this mean for the future of work?

RPA fundamentally changes how we think about the human-computer relationship. Instead of people acting as computer operators, digital workers  become the operators, freeing up time for people to do more creative, value-add work.

People moving data across systems was an interim solution. Now that RPA is widely available, companies can build, deploy and support an army of bots to run their computer operations. Not only does this save money in the long run by reallocating human labor to higher ROI projects, but also lowers companies operating costs.

The invention of the assembly line created new possibilities in efficiency. As software continues to eat the world, RPA bots are moving people off of the business process assembly line.  Just like people on Henry Ford's assembly line in 1913 were freed up to do less robotic work, people operating computers will be freed up to work on innovation, creation and solve higher-order problems.


Alex Zekoff

Alex is the co-founder and CEO of Thoughtful. He’s spent his career working with Fortune 50 clients developing streamlined processes, enterprise applications, and digital workers. Now, he wants to bring this revolutionary technology to everyone with Thoughtful's pioneering model: automation-as-a-service.

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