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Automation vs. robotics – what’s the difference?

In the age of hundreds new business acronyms being created each year, you may be lost when hearing about RPA, IPA (no, we’re not talking about beer here), BPA and more. Industrial automation, Robotic Process Automation, Test Automation – you may wonder what these terms even mean. Maybe you heard that ‘automation’ can produce amazing benefits to the businesses which decide to implement them, but chances are — you don’t even know where to start. If you’re coming from a non-technical background, you might be even wondering if robotics and automation are the same thing. In this article I’m going to try to break down the differences between the various terms I mentioned above. Hopefully it will ease your decision making process about automation, but if you’ll still be having questions — I’m happy to provide more guidance.

Does My Company Need Automation or Robotics?

First things first, if you are working in a high growth company, you are probably wondering if automation or robotics could be right for your business and if yes, how could it be applied. The quick answer is: it really depends on your current business structure and its needs.

In order to establish if it’s the right thing for you consider the following:

  • Are any tasks in your business currently done by human workers and are repetitive, follow the same process logic and are boring?
  • Are they physical tasks or virtual tasks?
  • Are any tasks in your business a bottleneck to productivity?

If you can think of even one or two tasks which are repetitive, monotonous or cause a bottleneck, they may be a good candidate for automation. If they are virtual tasks, a form of software automation should be considered. If they are physical tasks, industrial automation or robotics could be the answer.

What Are Automation and Robotics?

The basic difference between automation and robotics can be seen in their definitions:

  • Automation — Automation means using computer software, machines or other technology to carry out a task which would otherwise be done by a human worker. There are many types of automation, ranging from the fully mechanical to the fully virtual, and from the very simple to the extremely complex.
  • Robotics — Robotics is an interdisciplinary branch of engineering and science that includes mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, computer science, and others. Robotics deals with the design, construction, operation, and use of robots, as well as computer systems for their control, sensory feedback, and information processing. Robots are physical machines which have motors, sensors and controllers. You program them to perform physical tasks (e.g. lifting, machine tending, painting, etc) and they carry out those tasks autonomously.

There are obviously overlapping functions between the two. Robots are used to automate some physical tasks, such as in manufacturing. It’s worth noting that many types of automation have nothing to do with physical robots. Likewise, many branches of robotics have nothing to do with automation.

What Is Automation?

A lot of industries are talking about implementing automation at their respective divisions. Terms like Business Process Automation, Robotic Process Automation, Adaptive Automation and Test Automation are all vigorously repeated on conferences and forums. Broadly speaking, there are two types of automation: software automation and industrial automation.

Software Automation

If you’re read anything online about automation, chances are it was about software automation. A computer tool which is programmed to carry out repetitive tasks which follow certain logic which humans usually do when they are using computer programs.

For example, GUI test automation is a way to test computer programs. It involves recording the actions of a human during interacting with a graphical user interface. These actions are then replayed to autonomously test the program after changes have been made to the underlying software.

Other types of software automation include:

  • Business Process Automation (BPA) — is the technology-enabled automation of business processes. It is performed to achieve digital transformation or to increase service quality or to improve service delivery or to contain costs. It consists of integrating applications, restructuring human resources and using software applications throughout the organisation.
  • Robotic Process Automation (RPA) — Despite its name, RPA has nothing at all to do with physical robots. It refers to “software robots” or “bots”- programmed scripts to use computer programs in the same way as a human operator would. They don’t necessarily complete tasks in the most efficient way, but they are way easier to integrate into the existing business processes and can be implemented in stages, producing visible ROI almost from the very start.
  • Intelligent Process Automation (IPA) — This is an extension of RPA which uses artificial intelligence (AI) to learn how humans perform tasks when using a computer program and like human, make decisions based on logic, sentiment or past events. This allows the “software robots” to perform more intelligently than with rather static rules used in RPA.

There is a fine difference between BPA and RPA. To use an analogy from robotic manufacturing, BPA is a bit like ripping out your entire human-operated production line and replacing it with a fully autonomous one. RPA is like adding a collaborative robot to one workstation within the production line.

Boston Dynamics is one of the most famous companies producing advanced industrial robots, here — presenting their SpotMini robot.
Boston Dynamics is one of the most famous companies producing advanced industrial robots, here — presenting their SpotMini robot.

Industrial Automation

When you hear people talking about “automation and robotics”, they are usually referring to industrial automation. Industrial automation is all about controlling and managing physical processes. It involves using physical machines and control systems to automate tasks within an industrial process. A fully autonomous factory of Amazon is the extreme example: 

What Is Robotics?

As I already briefly mentioned, robots are programmable machines which are able to carry out a series of actions autonomously, or semi-autonomously. They interact with the physical world via sensors and actuators. Because they are reprogrammable, they are much more flexible than single-function machines. Robotics, therefore, refers to anything involving physical robots.

Within industrial automation, robots are used as a flexible way to automate a physical task or process. Collaborative robots are designed to carry out the task in the same way a human would. More traditional industrial robots tend to carry out the task more efficiently than a human would. Robots often are stationary but are still at risk of crashing into things, or people, wandering into their workspaces. Machine vision or motion sensors can cause robots to stop what they are doing if there is a potential obstruction. That’s why there is an increasing demand for truly collaborative robots — cobots — that can work productively with human colleagues. AI is enabling them to take instructions from humans, including novel instructions not anticipated in the robot’s original programming. For this, robots and humans need a common language, which could increasingly be plain speech. This concept already has been demonstrated at the University of Rochester and at MIT.

Robots That Are Not Automation

To make it a little more complex, some robots are “autonomous” (meaning that they operate without humans directly controlling them in a real time) but they are not used in automation. For example, a toy line-following robot can autonomously follow a line painted on the ground. However, it is not automation, because it isn’t performing a specific task. If, instead the line-following robot were transporting medicines around a hospital, then it would classify as automation.

Still Undecided Whether You Need Robotics or Automation?

When preparing investment in automation for your business, consider the following:

  • First and most important — Decide what parts of your business do you want to automate and if there are many, which one should be established a priority?
  • If the tasks or processes you want to automate are virtual, look into software automation.
  • If the tasks or processes you want to automate are physical, look into industrial automation.
  • Determine if your physical tasks or processes could be performed by a robot; If so, look into robotics as a solution. If not, look into other industrial automation options.

At Untrite, we provide smart RPA solutions for high growth companies. We are very excited about the new projects we are taking on helping our clients’ employees focus on productivity — not processing. Follow our next steps by subscribing to our newsletter or get in touch by emailing me directly at

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