Robotic Process Automation (RPA) & Low-Code Process Automation:
Use Cases, Benefits & More

The average employee spends 60 hours each month on tasks that could be automated, according to a global study. That’s three hours a day, per employee, spent manually filing documents, entering data, and compiling reports instead of focusing on revenue-generating efforts or organizational improvements.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Organizations are focusing on workflow automation to replace these manual tasks with digital alternatives. Robotic process automation (RPA) is a common tool in the enterprise to automate simple, repetitive tasks. Automating processes using a low-code platform is becoming a predominant automation option for organizations as well. Although there are similarities between these two technologies, the capabilities, use cases, and long-term values couldn’t be more different.

Read on for a closer look at both options to determine which is the right choice for your business’s automation needs.

What is Robotic Process Automation (RPA)?

RPA is the use of technology to automate repetitive business tasks that would otherwise be done manually. You can program virtual bots to perform the same repetitive actions that your human workers do, like filtering information, migrating data, or completing forms. The goal of RPA is for the bots to take over some of the grunt work so your human workers can focus on more valuable tasks.

How Does Robotic Process Automation Work?

There are various types of RPA technologies available, but at its most basic level RPA can be achieved using programmed or intelligent bots. Programmed bots follow pre-defined rules and steps set up by a programmer. Intelligent bots use artificial intelligence to learn how to perform a task. The bots follow the clicks and mouse movements of a user and, once they have enough data, can perform the tasks without human aid.

Regardless of whether you use programmed or intelligent bots, RPA can be used to perform business tasks like:

  • scraping and reading data from websites or other systems
  • extracting data and content from emails, PDFs, and other documents
  • migrating data, files, and folders
  • transferring information between siloed applications
  • filling out forms
  • copying and pasting information into different systems

Anything beyond repetitive, clerical procedures will require more sophisticated technology. 

Benefits of RPA

RPA excels at automating a single part of a very specific task, and bots can be replicated across different business units. Many RPA tools are designed with non-developers in mind, so implementation for very simple tasks can usually happen quickly.

Delegating repetitive business actions to bots means your human employees will have more time to focus on strategic initiatives. Plus, RPA bots work 24/7/365 and you don’t have to worry about human errors or pesky human needs, like sleep.

Where RPA Falls Short

RPA’s biggest advantage is also its greatest downfall: it’s limited to individual tasks and incapable of automating enterprise-wide end-to-end processes. Gartner reports, “There is a lack of guidance helping organizations to assemble robotic process automation (RPA) with other tools. This hinders end-to-end process automation, causing these organizations to miss out on strategic business values.”

Like the late, great dodo bird, RPA is unable to adapt to change. Since the bots are trained to follow simple, specific actions, even minor updates to a UI can cause a process to either fail or return incorrect data. RPA also requires routine maintenance and security, making it another process for your IT department to monitor.

RPA can run into difficulties when communicating with outdated legacy systems or navigating complicated UIs. In this case, you’ll need the help of savvy developers, which then defeats the purpose of implementing an automation tool.

What is Low-Code Process Automation?

There are no limitations to RPA with low-code process automation. Low-code is an intuitive, visual approach to software development that can also be used to automate tasks, end-to-end processes, and complex workflows. Rather than automating repetitive tasks within a legacy system, low-code process automation lets you re-imagine the process in the context of today’s technology capabilities, and flexibly implement modern digitalization.

One of the biggest advantages of low-code is that applications can be updated as your business needs change. And although it’s a more sophisticated type of process automation than RPA, low-code shines by enabling both technical and non-technical users to collaborate on process automation initiatives. Many low-code application platforms utilize a simplified development environment with drag-and-drop, intuitive interfaces that citizen developers across all business units can navigate with ease.

With low-code, if you can dream it you can build it.

RPA vs. Low-Code: When to Use Each Option

The question of “Should I use RPA or low-code?” is a loaded one because the two aren’t interchangeable. Anything beyond basic task automation requires more capabilities than RPA can offer, while the depth of low-code’s potential value is realized when it’s used for multiple projects and needs across the enterprise.

When to Use RPA When to Use Low-Code
  • automating simple, repetitive, routine tasks
  • automating simple, repetitive, routine tasks
  • enterprise-wide automation
  • building new applications
  • enhancing existing applications
  • integrating with complex legacy or third-party systems

RPA + Low-Code = Better Together

By design, RPA on its own is unable to solve certain challenges. For example, if you’re looking at RPA to automate tasks that involve an outdated legacy system, you need to understand how to integrate with the system and how certain processes are already implemented. This can be especially tricky if the data in the system is unstructured, as RPA is only suited for structured, quality data.

In many cases, you’d need to build a new system or update the existing one to get the full benefits of RPA. Both options could take several years and countless dollars. You’d also have to find a developer who knows their way around an archaic system, which is difficult (and even more expensive). Neither option is a future-focused business decision — but that’s where low-code process automation comes in.

Low-code is a comprehensive, end-to-end solution that can easily work with legacy systems to structure data through APIs. If you need to rebuild your outdated system, you can do so affordably in a matter of weeks or months by using a low-code application platform. With RPA methodologies, low-code can also be used to develop process automation applications that integrate with your existing systems.

Here’s an example of an RPA-inspired low-code application:

Let’s say a hiring manager only wants to review applications from candidates in one city. You can use RPA to filter resumes from postal codes outside of a certain area. This is a fairly simple task that, when automated, will make life easier for your human workers. But that’s just one small part of the broader hiring workflow that spans multiple systems of record and data sources.

By adding low-code process automation to the mix, you can take this process further. You can create a solution that automates the processes of sending emails to relevant candidates through Microsoft Exchange, recommending compensation bands through HR systems, verifying legal work status through document processing of employment contracts, and onboarding hired candidates.

Related Reading: How Low-Code & RPA Helped the UK’s Largest Poultry Supplier Save £250,000 Per Year

Complete Process Automation with a Low-Code Platform

To recap, RPA tools are used to automate repetitive, simple business tasks in existing systems, while low-code offers a broader range of development capabilities. In certain scenarios, you may only need RPA, while in others you’d be better off with low-code. There are also situations where RPA and low-code can work in tandem to maximize the effectiveness of process automation.

Ultimately, you should take a holistic approach to your business’ process automation. If an RPA tool is fitting for your current needs, will it still be valuable in five years? Will other departments need similar processes down the line? Low-code has an advantage when it comes to thinking about the big picture because of its sophistication and adaptability.

Low-code application platforms are able to scale and support your business as it grows and evolves, while also promoting cross-departmental collaboration.

See what’s possible with Mendix’s low-code Platform