The cost of RPA puts off most businesses, but there are low-cost, easy to use, alternatives out there – if you know where to look.
Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is vital for any business that wants to save time and money, or just wants to simplify their processes! Simply teach your RPA robot to perform a task, then sit back and watch it perform it faultlessly 24/7.
In my experience as an Automation Manager, an RPA robot will complete 3 to 4 times the work of its human counterpart and generate 95% fewer errors in the process. Can you your business afford to ignore those sorts of potential performance increases?
Costings tens of thousands a year, RPA is often out of the reach of smaller businesses. However, it hasn’t stopped its popularity growth in enterprises and large organizations. They can afford that level of investment and will see a considerable ROI over time.
But what about SMEs and even micro-businesses? What options are available to them? Luckily there are cheaper, much cheaper, and even free alternatives out there.
First, What Are the Expensive Options?
If you have investigated RPA at all, you will have no doubt come across the big 3 companies in this field; Automation Anywhere, UiPath, and Blue Prism. Between them, they control over a third of the marketplace.
Their names have now become so synonymous with the term RPA, most people believe you can’t achieve RPA without them. This couldn’t be further from the truth – if you have ever recorded and used a macro in Excel or Word, you have used a form of RPA without knowing it.
I have used all 3 offerings, and in my opinion, they are all equally capable packages with very little to separate them spec wise. They are all very powerful and can automate just about any task you care to throw at them – no matter how complex it might be.
Cost-wise, each package costs tens of thousands of dollars a year in license fees alone. The more robots you have, the more expensive it gets (typically, each robot effectively costs $5,000 to $8,000 per year). On top of that, you will still need to either hire in programmers or train up people to program them.
This normally makes them only purchasable by large organizations and enterprises. Squeezing out SMEs and micro-businesses. But do smaller organizations need such complex and expensive software when they just want to automate much simpler processes?
In my opinion, most SMEs won’t use even 5% of the capabilities of these packages. So what can they use?
Automating Simple Repetitive Tasks With Automation Services
One of the simplest (and cheapest) forms of RPA are online automation services like IfTTT (If This Then That). They connect applications (Office, Sage, File Manager, etc) so if something happens in one application it triggers processes in other applications.
For example, if an email arrives in Outlook, the automation service can generate a set of files inside Word and then use Outlook to email them back to the original sender. No human involvement at any stage.
They have been around for nearly 2 decades and have become very usable and easy to use over that time. Costs vary between free and a few hundred dollars a month. The only differences between the different variations are the applications they connect to and levels of automation complexity they can handle.
Which service you choose will come down to what applications they connect and if they offer a suitable level of automation complexity for your processes.
Here is a quick look at the main Automation Services available.
IfTTT (If This Then That)
IfTTT is the granddaddy of automation services and has been around for over a decade now.
At the time of writing, IFTTT can connect over 360 different services. Click here for full list. These include everything from blogging apps like WordPress, through to project management apps like Slack.
IFTTT Is the original automation service and as a result, it is the most polished service out there. Over time, the publisher has developed a well-tested and easy-to-use user interface. For someone new to automation services, this is the best option for learning RPA concepts.
Zapier is far more business focussed than IfTTT and has over 2,000 apps that connect to it. Click here for a full list – .
Zapier has pricing plans that range from free to $599 a month. The different pricing plans have different limits on the number of premium apps they connect. Some plans also limit the number of times processes can be run each day. The sweet spot for most small companies will be the Professional package at $49 a month.
One important thing to note is that the free package limits you to a single-step process. Which is not much use for most businesses.
For business users, Zapier is the most powerful of the three we are looking at here.
Is probably the most business-focused of the services we are looking at, but it also has the smallest library of apps to work with. At the time of writing, Microsoft flow has 323 compatible apps (or connectors as they call them). Click here for a full list.
It is free with Microsoft Office 365 and is not limited in use or process steps. Which makes it the most powerful free(ish) option of the three.
The Microsoft Flow website also provides many ready made “recipes” for the most common business processes, and this is being added to constantly. So, you may find you can pick a “recipe” off the shelf and just adapt it for your own needs.
Automating More Complex Processes
If you’re looking for a powerful solution, you can program your own using freely available programming languages. The two most powerful languages to use (in my opinion) are VBA (Microsoft Visual Basic for Applications) and Python. The former is built into Microsoft Office and the latter is Open Source Software.
You could choose almost any programming language and achieve a level of RPA, however, Python and VBA stand head and shoulders over these.
Even if you need to hire in programmers, it is still considerably cheaper than buying from the big 3 RPA companies. First, you won’t need to spend tens of thousands on the proprietary software. Second, programming VBA or Python is less specialized and as a result, programmers are cheaper.
By the way, the big 3 companies will have you believing you can program their software yourself with simple drag-and-drop type operations. This only applies to the automations you can complete with Automation Services. For anything more complex, you will need someone with an in-depth knowledge of Windows software and how they work.
Visual Basic for Applications (VBA)
VBA is probably the most underrated option available to you, and you probably already own it. VBA is built into all Microsoft Office applications as standard. More people have access to VBA than any other programming language, so the amount of support available is huge.
With VBA you can automate any task in the Microsoft Office suite of applications. Anything you can do sat at a keyboard, in front of an Office application, can easily be automated in VBA.
If you are new to programming, it is also one of the easiest languages to learn to program in. With a good tutorial, you could automate simple tasks in an hour or two! The BASIC part of the Visual Basic for Application name stands for “Beginners All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code” i.e. it was designed with beginners in mind.
Python is probably the ultimate language for developing your automation software in, and it is Open Source. i.e. Free to use! The software used to program in Python is also free – I would recommend using PyCharm.
Python has been around for 30 years and in that time a vast community has built up around it. So free support, advice, and tutorials are just a Google away. But the biggest benefit to being in this community is the add-on modules they have developed, most of which are free. These modules can add specialized capabilities to your programming, including;
- Machine Learning / AI
- Web scrapping and online data entry
- Operating desktop applications
- Querying and updating databases
- Image / video manipulation
- Object recognition
- Connecting to most business applications
- Manipulating documents (Word, Excel, text, CSV, etc)
The list could go on and on. Each module (or library to give them their correct name) adds new capabilities to your Python programming. You can pick and choose libraries that you need from a large central repository.
Python is used extensively in software testing as it can replicate users’ actions over and over again, without variation. These are all skills vital in RPA.
You don’t need a big budget to start using RPA in your business today. You could sign up for an Automation Service or start learning VBA programming, and be automating processes within a few hours. RPA doesn’t need to be big, complex, or expensive.
Each of the 3 methods of RPA has their pros and cons;
Automation Services (least expensive)
Great for automating small simple processes, with little or no programming expertise needed. Costs range from free to a few hundred dollars a month (depending on your exact needs)
Automation through Programming (middle cost)
Powerful and can complete the most complex processes. However, it will need some easily learnt programming skills. It has a massive support community providing support and extra features for free.
Big 3 RPA Packages (Very Expensive)
Also, very powerful and can complete the most complex processes. Needs a higher level of “behind the scenes” programming knowledge to interact with other software. Support is limited to that provided by the publishers via self-help forums. There is a growing support community, but it is still tiny compared to the communities supporting VBA and Python.
Also published on Medium