Companies are planning to spend big on robotic process automation

Expected benefits include increased productivity, better product quality, and improved customer service, according to new report

Warehouse robots for the rest of us Karen Leavitt, chief marketing officer at Locus Robotics, talks with Tonya Hall about how e-commerce companies other than Amazon incorporate warehouse robots into their facilities and how they work alongside their human counterparts.

Not that long ago, robotic process automation (RPA) was a new and largely untested technology. Now, it seems to be fairly mainstream. A new report from global consulting firm Protiviti shows that companies are planning to invest millions of dollars in the technology this year and to dedicate increasing resources toward developing their RPA capabilities over the next two years.

The study, Taking RPA to the next level, based on a global survey of 450 executives conducted by Protiviti and ESI ThoughtLab, finds that on average companies will spend $5 million on RPA software in the current fiscal year.

The largest organizations plan to invest $10 million to $20 million annually in RPA systems, as they look to automate a number of business processes.

Organizations that fall behind in developing RPA capabilities will soon find themselves at a competitive disadvantage, the report said, as RPA leaders expand their market share, generate higher revenues, and improve customer satisfaction.

The study identified a number of potential benefits associated with the motivation to invest in RPA. These include increased productivity (cited by 22%), better product quality (16%), strong competitive market position (15%), customer satisfaction (12%), and greater speed to market (11%).

In as little as two years, those organizations Protiviti has identified as leaders in RPA deployment will be using software bots in virtually every function within their organizations, said Tony Abel, a managing director with the firm. RPA "is a lynchpin of sleek and agile operations that will fortify companies' market positions by driving efficiencies, boosting speed to market and bolstering financial performance," he said.

The survey results reinforce the notion that organizations are implementing automation more to add commercial value, rather than to cut costs. In fact, cost cutting ranked as the lowest potential benefit of RPA, cited by just 3% of the respondents.

Despite successes with RPA, barriers toward productive implementations still exist, the report said. Of the organizations surveyed, 40% said one of the top obstacles is the inability to prioritize potential RPA initiatives.

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Just under one third said a "scattershot" approach to RPA has made it difficult to pursue the best applications of the technology. Other challenges include concerns associated with cyber security (40%) and regulatory compliance (30%).

The lack of available talent is another obstacle for a lot of companies looking to launch RPA initiatives. About one quarter of the executives surveyed cited that as a significant barrier. RPA leaders are making a concerted effort to train existing employees, partner with consulting companies or technology providers, and identify new sources of talent outside of their organizations.

To help organizations improve their RPA implementation plans, the study highlighted some of the lessons learned by those companies that are most advanced in their use of RPA.

These include analyzing and tracking the cost-effectiveness of each RPA application; leveraging the ecosystem of RPA partners, suppliers, and consultants; making sure there is a plan and budget for ongoing maintenance; ensuring the use of the right application for the processes within the enterprise; and developing and communicating a clear RPA business plan and strategy.