Reusable RPA plugins can be added to your RPA bot to take care of specific tasks like checking and sending emails, manipulating spreadsheets, translating text etc. Therefore, they reduce development efforts, error rates and implementation time.
Reusable RPA plugins have numerous names. This is because RPA marketplaces that sell these tools have only been recently launched and industry has not yet converged on a common terminology. Different names for reusable RPA plugins include app, bot, solution, component, dashboard, workflow, skill, connector, asset, snippet, component, activity or plugin.
We answered the most common questions on reusable RPA plugins:
- Why are reusable RPA plugins/bots important now?
- What are the types of reusable RPA plugins offered in RPA marketplaces?
- What are the most popular reusable RPA plugins?
- How to choose reusable RPA plugins/bots to speed up RPA deployment?
Why are reusable RPA plugins/bots important now?
Reusability is key to efficient software development. Functions which encapsulate a set of operations and enable reusability were one of the first major innovations in software development. Ever since the rise of the first programming languages like Fortran in the 60s, to the rise of content management platform WordPress in 2000s, flexible automation tools relied on functions.
Functions have many names, functions, apps, add-ons etc. What they have in common is that they provide:
- Task encapsulation
- Task separation
- Simplifying code re-use
- Simplifying testing
- Separating data and logic
Therefore, as long as the inputs and output requirements do not change, other programmers can update and improve sub-programs without interfering with any of the programs that use the sub-program.
The world of RPA programming is no different. Companies need similar functionality and building that functionality is one of the most time consuming aspects of RPA. Companies have common processes such as invoice to payment or employee onboarding. And these processes have common tasks such as checking dates, sending emails etc. Since these processes are rarely a source of strategic advantage for firms, reusing software for one company for another increases efficiency of the overall market. Additionally, RPA bot development is one of the most time consuming parts of RPA implementation. Therefore, any reductions in development time significantly improves deployment time of RPA bots.
There is a growing industry of companies that build applications that run on RPA tools to take care of specific tasks. For example, Hypatos is an AI company that built software for extracting data from invoices. Since invoices can take many different forms and since Hypatos spent years solving this problem, their solution reduces programming related to invoice handling and reduces error rate. RPA companies could possibly build these apps as well but they already have the daunting task of competing in the RPA space and the reduction in focus is probably not worth the reward.
What are the types of reusable RPA plugins offered in RPA marketplaces?
We can classify apps in these categories:
Since most companies’ basic processes such as invoice to payment are similar on a high level, pre-programmed process software with detailed documentation help simplify development and reduce the need for customization. These are generally structured by industry (e.g. retail), business function (e.g. marketing) or purpose (e.g. collaboration).
These are called “Solution” in UiPath Go Marketplace and “Process bots” in Automation Anywhere Bot Store.
Though RPA companies provide a significant number of integrators to different on-premise/cloud software, it’s not feasible to wait for them to build all possible connections. Especially emerging companies could build their own integrations to use these marketplaces as part of their go to market strategy.
These are called “connector” in UiPath Go Marketplace and “application bots” in Automation Anywhere Bot Store.
Cognitive/machine learning solutions
Even simple processes like invoice to payment require machine learning solutions as invoices come in many different formats. These solutions provide the cognitive functions which are easy to define but hard to implement.
Invoice data extraction is a good example. There are actually only a few companies that solve this problemend-to-end, (i.e. taking the invoice image and extracting the necessary fields such as product name, bank account, payment account and so on with high accuracy).
These are called “Machine Learning Models” in UiPath Go Marketplace and “cognitive bots” in Automation Anywhere Bot Store. “Visual perception skills” in Blue Prism Digital Exchange provide cognitive solutions focused on visual perception.
Some major marketplace participants are listed below:
|Developer||Solutions||Automation Anywhere Bot Store||Blue Prism Digital Exchange||UiPath Go||Comments|
|Omni:us||Handwriting data capture||Available|
|ABBYY||Image data capture||Available||Available||Available|
|Adobe||Image data capture||Available|
|Rossum||Invoice data capture||Available|
|Hypathos||Invoice data capture||Available|
|Various cognitive functions||Available||Available||Available||3rd party developers use company's APIs to build RPA apps|
|IBM||Various cognitive functions||Available||Available||Available||3rd party developers use company's APIs to build RPA apps|
|Microsoft||Various cognitive functions||Available||Available||Available||3rd party developers use company's APIs to build RPA apps|
What are the most popular reusable RPA plugins?
Automation Anywhere was the first vendor to share its data on this point. According to Automation Anywhere, the top plugins perform the operations below. As expected, the most commonly used plugins perform simple, widely applicable functionality, not process specific functionality. So while these are useful for most projects, your RPA project could benefit a lot more from a more specialized plugin designed for the process you are automating.
- Various Email Operations: This plugin can sort/read/send emails and create appointments. It can be effortlessly integrated into new or existing email platforms without technical supervision.
- Change Date and Time Format: This plugin can used to make common date/time operations such as adding seconds, minutes, days, months, years, changing date formats, subtracting/comparing dates etc. Different databases can keep dates in different formats so this bot can be useful in projects that rely on multiple data/time data sources.
- Convert Speech to Text: Leverages IBM’s APIs to convert long or short form audio to text.
- Various Spreadsheet Operations: Performs google sheet operations such as get cell/column/row etc.
- Microsoft Excel Operations: Performs common excel operations similar to the google sheet bot above. It is interesting to see that google sheets is more popular in Automation Anywhere Bot Store than Microsoft’s Excel. This could be because while Excel is widely used, early adopters could be using google sheets, a newer/purely cloud product more. Automation Anywhere Bot Store’s users should also be early adopters since the store was only launched in 2018.
- Analyze Image Content: Uses Microsoft Computer Vision API for image analysis
How to choose reusable RPA plugins/bots to speed up RPA deployment?
Now that you know that you can find reusable RPA plugins in RPA marketplaces, the important point is to choose the plugins to use. Once you identified the need for a reusable plugin, you can search the marketplace (e.g. UiPath Go for UiPath RPA platfom) for it.
- Choose the plugin to demo:
- If there is only one plugin for the functionality you are searching for, then you may as well choose it for a quick test
- If there are multiple plugins, prioritize
- By number of reviews and rating first. For two plugins offering the same functionality with the same rating (e.g. 4 stars), the one with a higher number of reviews is likely to be better as it achieved the same review from a higher number of users. As in any data-driven decision, number of data points matter. Finally, taking a brief look at any text reviews would be a good idea. There could be some red flags such as incompatibility with the latest version of your RPA platform which could make you decide to skip a plugin in favor of another one.
- By developer secondly. If two plugins have similar number of reviews and the same rating, then briefly check the developer.
- Best developers are the RPA platform owners (e.g. UiPath, Automation Anywhere) as they know the platform inside out and it is in their best interest to make it a success.
- After that, large companies are safe bets as they are unlikely to risk damaging their reputation with buggy plugins.
- Finally come unknown developers. Reusable RPA bots/plugins should be relatively safe to use as all submissions are reviewed by the operators of marketplaces. However, this was also the case in Android marketplace, Google Play, and that did not prevent user data being sold. So it is best not to work with unknown developers’ plugins unless they have a high number of reviews and high ratings. Unfortunately, even in that case, users may simply not be aware of the issues in the plugin, such as storage of their data. As a caution, your company’s sensitive data should not processed by such plugins. Of course, this is our outside-in view, if RPA marketplace owners explain the security tests they run, we could be convinced.
- Demo the plugin: Since you know the required functionality you need from the plugin, try it out by integrating the plugin into your RPA bot. If all works fine, you are good to go! And would be good to leave a review in the marketplace as currently they are quite light on reviews now.