The 'software robots' changing outsourcing: 'Up to 60 percent of the tasks can be automated'

Romanian startup UiPath is targeting the BPO industry by helping robots take over the jobs that human workers hate.

UiPath's strategy is straightforward. Its CEO Daniel Dines refuses to make PowerPoint presentations for potential clients. "Instead, we show them the software and teach them what it can do."

Dines and his team are in the 'software robots' business, part of a market expected to stretch to $5bn by 2020, up from less than $200m in 2013, according to Transparency Market Research. A challenger to Blue Prism and Automation Anywhere, the Romanian startup estimates it will quadruple its annual turnover this year, to $2m.

The team started working together some ten years ago. Initially, their products addressed the consumer market. Then, they wrote libraries for UI automation and screen scraping for other developers to use, a step that helped them test their ideas and gather feedback.

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A few years ago, they started working on their own robotic process automation platform. "We came late to the table, so we're using the latest technologies," Mihai Badita, senior business analyst at UiPAth, said.

A UiPAth software robot mimics a user. It sees the computer screen the way a human does. It clicks buttons, copy-pastes data from a picture to a spreadsheet, looks for specific numbers in a PDF file, or pops-up information about a client you're talking to on the phone.

Say the software's being deployed at an insurance firm. A customer fills in a form with some information the company asked for, and emails it in as an attachment. The robot saves the attachment, validates the information (for example, ensuring there are no letters in the field that should contain numbers), extracts data from particular fields, and exports it into the insurance company's software, where it can be looked at and manipulated by human workers.

Changing outsourcing

The company has already acquired clients such as Cognizant, Capgemini, the BBC, and CenturyLink. BPO companies are among their most valuable partners, as they use software robots to further lower their costs - such tools can work 24/7, 365 days a year, picking up an employee's repetitive tasks.

Trained robots can reduce costs by up to 50 percent, according to the Institute for Robotic Process Automation. Usually, one can replace between two and five full-time employees. A robot also does the job without misspelling names or numbers; humans, on the other hand, typically make 10 errors during a 100-step process.

An UiPAth software robot is at least three times faster than a human - and often even quicker than that. "There are other processes, background automation as we call them, when the robot instantly reads, writes and validates emails, spreadsheets, and PDFs. In such cases, it can be up to 100 times faster than a human," Badita said.

Not all work can be assigned to robots, though. "We estimate that around 50 to 60 percent of tasks can be automated, for the time being."

What to automate

Those using the UiPath platform usually need a week to automate a 200-step process with complex business rules, provided that it's well documented and standardized. Their robots have been deployed in financial services, insurance, and healthcare.

Several factors come into play when deciding which jobs to automate. First, it's the frequency of the task. "If it's done on a monthly basis, then you better leave it to a human," Badita said. If it's a repetitive process involving thousands of people, a software robot might do it more efficiently.

Robotic process automation will also change the way BPOs bill their clients. Such companies used to think in term of people required to complete a job. Now, they can add robots into the equation and change their model for working out appropriate staffing levels.

Jobs lost

As companies rush to replace humans with automated systems, many employees fear they might be let go. "The first to disappear are the copy-paste jobs, those governed by very strict rules," Badita said.

Throughout history, he adds, progress has always made certain jobs obsolete. Yet, concurrently, new occupations have emerged, and often these have been more creative and involved a higher pay. "Overall, the benefits of automation exceed by far its side effects," he said.

"Instead of a million people doing the same task over and over, we can have 200,000, more qualified and better paid [workers], who are able to supervise the processes." It happened before, with the boost in industry and the decline of people involved in agriculture, he argued.

Together with the global changes on the job market and the rise of software robots, more and more RPA startups like this one are beginning to show up. Badita said UiPath is growing at a fast pace. Instead of deep product development, he's now often shaking hands with corporate people and adding business meetings to his calendar. The 12pm to 9pm T-shirt days are over. "We need to wear suits," he said.

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