Each new development in the history of powered machines has brought with it an increased requirement for control devices to harness the power of the machine. The earliest steam engines required a person to open and close the valves, first to admit steam into the piston chamber and then to exhaust it. Later a slide valve mechanism was devised to automatically accomplish these functions. The only need of the human operator was then to regulate the amount of steam that controlled the engine’s speed and power. This requirement for human attention in the operation of the steam engine was eliminated by the flying-ball governor. Invented by James Watt in England, this device consisted of a weighted ball on a hinged arm, mechanically coupled to the output shaft of the engine. As the rotational speed of the shaft increased, centrifugal force caused the weighted ball to be moved outward. This motion controlled a valve that reduced the steam being fed to the engine, thus slowing the engine. The flying-ball governor remains an elegant early example of a negative feedback control system, in which the increasing output of the system is used to decrease the activity of the system.
When you hear the words “automation,” the first thing that comes to your mind are robots building cars (and stealing your jobs). That’s Industrial Automation, however, and is completely different from BPA. While IA focuses on automating physical human labor (assembling products, for example), BPA means automating processes and workflows (document approval process, employee onboarding process, etc.).
Alex Colon is the managing editor of PCMag's consumer electronics team. He previously covered mobile technology for PCMag and Gigaom. Though he does the majority of his reading and writing on various digital displays, Alex still loves to sit down with a good, old-fashioned, paper and ink book in his free time. (Not that there's anything wrong wit... See Full Bio
Robotic process automation (RPA)—typically used to automate structured, back office digital process tasks—turns out to be the opening gambit in many organizations’ digital transformation strategies. It also appears to be a precursor to artificial intelligence (AI). In a recent research project on priorities in process and performance management, APQC, a business research institute, found that RPA was a nucleus of 69 percent of digital strategies. In another survey on investments in process automation, anticipated RPA projects were right behind analytics and data management, and almost twice as likely as near-term investments in AI or intelligent automation. (See Figure 1) Only 12 percent of those APQC surveyed had no plans to invest in any of these technologies in 2018.
Crispin and Gregory define Test-Driven Development (TDD) as the process of writing and automating small unit tests before writing the piece of code that will make the test pass. TDD is used for continuous integration testing to ensure small units of code work together first. A unit test verifies the behavior of a small part of the code in the overall system. These tests are the primary candidate for the majority of automated tests. Even teams that are not practicing Agile development use TDD to prevent defects and design software (Agile Testing, 2008).
There is a common reference to a “shift left” approach in modern development practices. This term refers to the advent of testing software earlier in the development cycle than traditional methods. Developers are now responsible for, and held accountable to, testing their code as they create it (sometimes before it's developed, but more on that later). Also, test professionals capable of a higher level of technical expertise, including the ability to write code (automation code), are in demand and job titles often go by a variety of names.
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At NASA, cost pressures led the agency to launch four RPA pilots in accounts payable and receivable, IT spending, and human resources—all managed by a shared services center. Shared services centers are often responsible for implementing RPA in many companies. At the space agency, all four projects worked well and are being rolled out across the organization. In the human resource application, for example, 86% of transactions were completed without human intervention. NASA is now implementing more RPA bots, some with higher levels of intelligence.
Business process automation (BPA) is defined as the automation of complex business processes and functions beyond conventional data manipulation and record-keeping activities, usually through the use of advanced technologies. It focuses on “run the business” as opposed to “count the business” types of automation efforts and often deals with event-driven, mission-critical, core processes. BPA usually supports an enterprise’s knowledge workers in satisfying the needs of its many constituencies.