Robotic process automation (RPA) is software that can be programmed to automatically execute most systems-based tasks, and can be an effective way to improve productivity and lower costs. However, anybody looking at RPA needs to think hard about the total cost of ownership (TCO) of the RPA solutions being considered. These products differ in various ways, which can make it hard to compare their TCO.

How should you think about the TCO for RPA products? One approach is to divide total cost into six distinct components, including the costs associated with:

  1. Purchasing an RPA platform
  2. Creating initial automated processes
  3. Creating later automated processes
  4. Executing processes
  5. Managing and scaling processes
  6. Securing and auditing processes

It’s important to distinguish between two quite different styles of RPA: enterprise RPA and remote desktop automation (RDA).

RDA products typically create scripts that run on desktop computers, with each script implementing steps in an automated process. Enterprise RPA, by contrast, provides software robots designed to run on servers.

Even though both RDA and enterprise RPA fall under the umbrella of robotic process automation, the two approaches have different goals. While RDA offerings are largely focused on creating scripts for people to run on their desktops, enterprise RPA solutions aim to create a centrally managed, scalable and secure digital workforce using software robots.

Both approaches have value, but as you might expect, the architectural differences between RDA and enterprise RPA solutions lead to differences in total cost of ownership (TCO).

In an RDA product, the typical approach is to have an experienced user start the product’s recorder software, then carry out a process manually. The recorder remembers each step in the process and then creates a script listing those steps. This script can be used over and over to execute the same process automatically.

Enterprise RPA doesn’t rely on a recorder. Instead, IT and/or businesspeople build automation workflows that instruct digital workers to access systems and execute tasks.

A digital worker is a software-based team member that is enhanced with artificial intelligence (AI) and cognitive capabilities and can be activated, managed and controlled within an RPA platform.

Digital workers complete systems-based tasks faster and more accurately than human employees, leaving human employees time to engage with customers, comprehend their needs and deliver the best experience.

Using a recorder is generally faster than the enterprise RPA approach when you’re first creating automated processes. Since creating these initial processes takes less time with RDA offerings, this component of RPA TCO is typically lower with RDA offerings.

Assuming your first attempts at process automation go well, you’ll next automate more business processes. With RDA offerings, this means creating more scripts. With an enterprise RPA platform, you’ll create more processes and (perhaps) more business objects.

This is where the value of reusability in an enterprise RPA platform becomes clear. Rather than walking through every detail of the recording process again, as in a script-based approach, new processes reuse your existing business objects. This reuse can make it faster to create those processes. In fact, the more you use this type of platform, the larger your library of reusable business objects will become. Over time, the cost of creating processes will go down — as there’s less work to do for each one — something that’s typically not true with script-based solutions.

This object-based approach also lowers the difficulty — and thus the cost — of changing existing processes.

If you’re looking for a fast and simple way to create desktop scripts, an RDA offering might well be right for you, despite its higher long-term TCO. But if you’re looking to create a scalable, secure, server-based digital workforce, expect enterprise RPA to provide lower TCO over the long run.