Automating Excel with RPA: Approaches and Best Practices
It is hard to find an office employee who doesn’t use Microsoft Excel spreadsheets in their everyday work. With an estimated 800 million users worldwide, Excel is one of the most ubiquitous office applications out there. Standard uses for it include budget planning, income and expenditures recording, data reconciliation, reporting and many more. While it already simplifies the work of many people, you can make Excel even more effective by automating it.
Excel automation tools
There are a lot of specialized Excel automation tools on the market. They include Java plugins, Excel add-ins for Visual Basic Studio, and various Python and C# tools. These tools have several benefits that make them popular with users. Most of them are free yet powerful and can automate a lot of processes in Excel.
However, several downsides may prevent business people from using them. First, in order to use a lot of special Excel automation software tools, you need to know at least the basics of programming, which makes it harder for business users. Second, very often, operations in Excel are just a part of a much bigger process which can include many other applications and tasks, so automating only the Excel portion will not be very efficient in terms of the whole process.
In this case, a robotic process automation tool should be used. It will allow you to automate and optimize the whole process cycle, bringing real business value to your company.
How to automate Excel with RPA
There are several approaches to automating Excel with RPA:
- Coding using RPA API and other API tools
- Native actions for Excel automation
- Object-based automation
All the above approaches have their pros and cons. Let’s illustrate a few:
Coding using API
A code-based approach allows you to automate Excel using RPA API and other API tools, such as Apache POI. The main advantages of this approach are wide automation capabilities and speedier execution. However, this approach requires coding skills and so probably necessitates an RPA developer on the team. So, it can be unsuitable for business users.
Native Excel actions
In this approach, automation scripts are built with special Excel actions from the library of pre-built actions. Its biggest benefit is ease of development — the script is created using the user-friendly drag-and-drop interface, with no coding required. Also, actions are executed instantly in the background. The main disadvantage is that automation capabilities are limited to the list of ready actions. For any tasks outside of their scope, one will need to use the other two approaches.
Example: You need to scrape data regarding 1,000 online companies and save it in an Excel file. The best approach is to write the data in Excel with built-in actions in the background.
Object-based is the standard approach to automating all desktop applications. In this case, the bot emulates the actions of a real person, typing and clicking on buttons and other elements on the UI. It allows you to automate all actions in Excel that a real person can do, if they are routine and rule-based. However, when the bot interacts with the application UI — rather than with the file directly, as when API is used — the speed of execution is slower than with the two approaches above, and the application needs to be opened on the screen.
Example: You need to import some data from a CSV file in an XLS file, sort the imported data, apply filters and highlight headers in the table. The best approach is to open the XLS file on the screen and imitate a person’s actions in it.
Many automated workflows will combine two or all these approaches.
Best practices for automating Excel
All business processes have their specifics, but there are some common best practices we recommend when automating Excel with these approaches, depending on the software that is used, the task that needs to be implemented, format of data in the file, and other factors.
The main best practices are put together in our Knowledge Base guide,
“Excel Automation Best Practices” which also includes examples of automation scripts built following these practices. A lot of advice on Excel automation can also be found in our Community Forum.
And if you want to learn more, Automation Academy offers free courses to help you explore business automation.