Process automation shortens or eases manual tasks, often making the results more accessible to users. Automation typically decreases the need for human deliberation or exertion while performing a task. Automated actions respond immediately to an earlier action. In technology, automatic features have been programmed so that actions trigger further related actions.
- History of process automation
- Computers and process automation
- Benefits of process automation
- Process automation in businesses
- Process automation in tech-focused enterprises
- Other types of process automation
- Concerns about process automation
History of process automation
The following historical examples of automation highlight how process automation shortens tasks and provides a new method for performing them, often one that takes much less time or human energy than the one before.
The Antikythera mechanism was a device used to mathematically predict the positions of astronomical bodies. Known as the first analog computer, the mechanism performed astronomical calculations without requiring the previous level of human attention (writing or drawing predictions, for example).
The printing press, invented by Gutenberg in the 15th century, automated the book production process. Previously, scribes painstakingly copied pages by hand. Using the printing press, people didn’t need to hand-copy all books—the machine applied ink to the paper. Because books were now more quickly available, their price also decreased, making them more widely available as well.
Machines in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such as the cotton gin, also simplified tedious manual tasks. The cotton gin pulled seeds away from cotton fibers. Steam engines of all kinds powered businesses, mills, and machines such as trains and factory equipment.
In the Industrial Revolution, automation in factories initially endangered workers. Good ways to stop out-of-control machines hadn’t been developed yet, and many factory employees were injured by machinery. In recent decades, automation has helped protect people by entirely removing them from dangerous machinery. For example, software- and robot-controlled assembly line processes can replace human workers in hazardous conditions.
Computers and process automation
In the late twentieth century, computers automated an array of tasks. These tasks included:
- Communication by talking face to face with someone (automated by email)
- File storage in a cabinet, drawer, or folder (automated by databases)
Internet communications between web users and websites are automated. A user types in “www.webopedia.com” in the URL bar, and the website loads. “www.webopedia.com” is simply the domain name, which translates back-end computer technology so that humans can more easily read it. IP addresses are what identify the website, and they’re composed of numbers. A Domain Name System (DNS) server retrieves the correct IP address based on the domain name entered and then directs the computer user to the associated website.
Software also has automated features (aside from its entire concept, which springs from automation). Optical character recognition understands the contents of scanned documents by recognizing patterns that the program has already stored. Intelligent character recognition, a similar program, is better for handwriting and more difficult characters.
Computer-aided design and manufacturing software automates the formation of similar products and pieces by controlling their specifications through a program. The software controls machines, which cut or formulate materials into identical copies. CAD programs often also allow manufacturers to test scenarios and products within the software, rather than performing a physical test.
Benefits of process automation
Five benefits of automating processes and tasks, specifically in business settings, include:
- Reducing costs—when businesses consolidate tasks, they have to perform fewer steps, which can reduce the amount of money they spend on all combined steps.
- Increasing productivity—when businesses automate manual processes, they give their employees more time to perform other important tasks. More total work is accomplished.
- Ensuring high availability—particularly in technology, automation can make services more available to users.
- Increasing reliability—automation is a way to avoid human error. Computers can often find solutions more rapidly and reliably than can people.
- Optimizing performance—the brief overview of historical automation above demonstrates how drastically automation changes job performance. Automation can shift a task from being time-consuming to ordinary or even obsolete.
Process automation in businesses
Though process automation is a broad category that can refer to any type of streamlining, it’s most frequently referenced as business process automation, or BPA. Business technology that automates common enterprise tasks include:
- Project management software, which digitalizes and tracks all steps of a project, sets clear expectations for team members, and streamlines documents
- Office productivity software, which not only includes applications for completing tasks but often integrations with other software
- Accounting software, which moves previously manual mathematics into an application. Even very simple spreadsheet software automates equations by immediately calculating figures and adjusting cells according to other changes.
- Human resources software, which automates storing employee information, job application forms, organization charts, billing information, and benefits data
Process automation in tech-focused enterprises
Storage automation shifts repetitive, time-intensive storage management tasks away from IT personnel to software, which can preconfigure and provision storage devices and direct storage automatically to the most efficient location. Data centers need flexible storage solutions, and the more that software can manage storage, the more resources an enterprise has to handle other technology operations.
Data analytics uses intelligent software to find and analyze trends in enterprise data. Using this context, businesses can make decisions more quickly.
Artificial intelligence and machine learning are two of the most relevant applications of process automation in modern technology. Artificial intelligence, broadly speaking, trains computers to make human-like observations and decisions. Machine learning, similarly, teaches computers to observe patterns, typically in images, and gradually develop the ability to make intelligent choices, such as optimizing workload and storage migration in data centers. AI and machine learning assist enterprise applications, like sending emails to prospective customers and notifying employees of tasks.
The shift to software-defined data centers and software-defined storage shows how important automation has become. Software-defined infrastructures simply manage technology resources, such as computing, networking, and data storage, using applications rather than hardware.
Security relies heavily on automation. Attackers often have the upper hand when attempting to compromise a computer system, device, or network. Automated processes sort through computer and network data, hunting for anomalies that might suggest an attacker’s work or presence. Platforms such as endpoint detection and response and intrusion detection and prevention systems use intelligence to observe and prevent attacks and data theft.
Other types of process automation
Macros are a software feature used in Microsoft Excel that create code once and can then automatically be run later. The full action’s code is contained within the single component.
Robotic process automation is an AI/machine-learning-enabled form of software process automation. It can be used for tasks such as payroll processing or simple chat functions on a website. Chatbots automate human conversation with potential customers, allowing a business to more effectively sort their needs and point them to the right place.
Robots don’t have to be physical to be effective; robotic forms of process automation often operate through software. One huge type of automation, connected to AI and machine learning, is virtual assistants, including Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, and Microsoft‘s Cortana. Virtual assistants can perform searches on devices, activate home systems such as lighting, make conference calls, and play music, among other tasks.
Concerns about process automation
Because automation shifts tasks, particularly to technology, workers have expressed fears that automation will decrease jobs. Robots’ ability to perform jobs especially raises concerns: some research suggests that approximately 25% of jobs are endangered by automation. However, automation and AI aren’t advanced enough to completely steal that percentage of jobs, and other experts argue that automation makes room for the creation of more jobs.
The Industrial Revolution in the 19th century also raised these questions. Although its ramifications included some social upheaval and the fight for workers’ rights, it didn’t end up destroying job availability. The job market has completely shifted over the past two hundred years, and positions have opened that people wouldn’t have been able to imagine during the first or second industrial revolution. Process automation isn’t yet poised to eliminate the majority of positions.
This article was updated July 2021 by Jenna Phipps.