The Robotic Process Automation (RPA) revolution is well and truly underway, with RPA firms like Romania’s UiPath, UK-based Blue Prism and the US’s Automation Anywhere all bona fide tech giants.
Globally, RPA, which uses software robots to automate repetitive back-office tasks, is projected to grow by almost 20% year on year in 2021, to reach $1.89bn, according to research and advisory firm Gartner.
However, some believe that the revolution isn’t quite as all-encompassing as it seems, and that there are opportunities for those offering a bit of a human touch to go alongside it.
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“There’s quite a mixed sentiment to RPA on the market,” Mariusz Pultyn, cofounder and chief executive of Polish rent-a-robot start-up Digital Teammates, tells Sifted.
This is good news for his company. “I’m seeing a growing number of requests to take over the operation of RPA for clients,” he adds. “They don’t want to do it themselves.”
While the initial process of setting up a robot to manage repetitive back-office tasks is relatively easy, “when these robots face real business challenges and changing environments, this process is getting more and more complex,” says Pultyn.
In order to properly implement RPA, companies often have to build a dedicated team, or spread the responsibility between existing teams to take care of the technology. “This is something that not every company is actually willing to do,” he says.
The Polish startup, which was founded in 2017 and now has over 130 employees, is trying to fill that gap. Its business model is relatively simple: rent out robots and handle all of the technical aspects so that the customer doesn’t have to.
“We don't bother our clients with the infrastructure, licensing, all of the complexities of the engineering process which leads to creating robots. We provide the solution to the real challenges that exist in the workplace,” says Pultyn, who estimates that customers can save around 50% of the cost of a person doing the same work, without the stress of needing to manage it all themselves.
RPA, not so fast
Pultyn says that a lot of companies started with big hopes for RPA – millions of savings, huge potential – but that the reality has been a little bit mixed.
For banks and accountant firms, which have a lot of repetitive back office tasks, the benefits of RPA are obvious, as are the savings of doing it largely themselves after the initial introduction period. However, for others the effort to do it all in-house might not be worth it.
Digital Teammates has among its clients large industrial companies, as well as public institutions. “We are at the places where the companies understand that robots are not their core business,” he says.
Pultyn says the company has roughly 400 robots operating every day, across three continents, with 17 customers. It’s been profitable since the beginning of 2020.
The company charges based on the actual work the robot is doing. “If the robot is inputting transactions like money transfers we charge for each properly inputted money transfer. It’s based on the volume of work.”
“When the robot does anything, it’s being paid. If it doesn't do anything we aren’t charging. So it's purely based on the work volumes,” he adds.
One of the main concerns that many have with RPA is its ability to push out human workers. However, Pultyn believes that automation should be less about robots coming for our jobs and more about a changing landscape of work that gives different opportunities to people (and removes the most boring and repetitive tasks).
The startup hires what they call Robo Shepherds, often people who formerly worked in back office departments, and trains them to design, build and maintain robots using RPA platforms.
“This is part of our mission, to address the shortage of IT skills on the market, to be filled with people who don't actually have to be trained on a university level,” he says.
“We provided the opportunity for people to completely transform their careers. They were previously working for the back office, which can be threatened by automation. We let those people join the IT industry.”
Pultyn is also proud of the fact that half of the team are female, a rarity in the tech industry.
When these robots face real business challenges and changing environments, this process is getting more and more complex.
Robots in the cloud
Digital Teammates operates on Azure, Microsoft’s public cloud, except when dealing with certain clients, like financial services providers.
At the same time, Pultyn says that companies are rightly cautious about the kind of access that robots can grant. “The robots can see the most secret things about a company, so the security and compliance issues are always upfront. We have good answers, but still a lot of companies are quite conservative to let anybody in.”
Ultimately, however, he sees the hybrid model they are offering, somewhere between fully independent RPA and business process outsourcing, as a much-needed solution.
“My view is that a lot of companies that actually started their own robotisation efforts now are starting to realise that this is not something they should do,” he says.
For those, simply renting a robot or two might be the answer.
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