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AI Automation 101: Boost Your Business for a Competitive Edge

Explore how AI automations and AI agents work and how implementing them in your business gives you a competitive edge.

By Kevin Hutson
Image of a robot engaging with floating digital elements

In today's data-driven world, businesses are constantly seeking ways to streamline processes, boost productivity, and gain a competitive edge.

This is where AI automation comes in — creating a new level of intelligent workflows that transform how your business operates.

In this article:

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What is Automation?

Automation’s significance in today's fast-paced world lies in its ability to transform complex challenges into manageable solutions — improving business processes by delegating repetitive tasks to machines.

Automation tools streamline processes by linking data across various tools, and once established, they need minimal ongoing manual intervention.

Types of Automation

Before we discuss exactly how automation helps with business efficiency, let’s define a few different types of automation.

Traditional Automation

Traditional automation is designed to execute repetitive tasks based on explicit, predefined rules determined by humans and does not learn or evolve.

AI Automation

AI automation uses artificial intelligence capabilities like machine learning and natural language processing (NLP) to enable machines to learn from data and experiences, recognize patterns, and make human-like decisions.

AI automation tools do adapt and evolve over time.

AI Agents

Similar to AI automation, AI agents are designed to make human-like decisions. However, unlike AI automation tools, AI agents take autonomous actions (i.e., without needing any human input).

Comparing the 3 Automation Types

The key differentiator of traditional automation, AI automation, and AI agents lies in their independence and cognitive capabilities.

Type of Automation How It Works Level of Human Involvement Tasks
Traditional Automation Predetermined rules High — need explicit instructions Menial, repetitive tasks
AI Automation Learns from data to
make human-like decisions
Medium — moderate amount of setup Data analysis & decision
AI Agents Make decisions autonomously Low — need only an end goal Complex problem-solving
& interactions

The Benefits of Automation

By embracing automation — specifically AI automation and AI agents — you can streamline your operations, improve decision-making, and unlock the full potential of your workforce.

Automation boosts:

  • Efficiency: Increasing the speed of task execution & improving operations by optimizing processes
  • Accuracy: Precisely analyzing vast amounts of data to identify patterns and make more accurate decisions
  • Scalability: Enabling teams to meet increased demands & concentrate on higher-value activities like strategy, creativity, and innovation

Ultimately, automation tools improve efficiency and accuracy, significantly reducing operational costs — while freeing up capacity for higher innovation, enabling greater opportunity for growth.

How Businesses Use Automation

Businesses across various industries leverage automation in many ways, including:

Task or Industry How Automation Is Utilized
Document Handling Extracting & processing data
Project Management Planning projects & allocating resources
IT Deploying & maintaining systems
Hiring & Onboarding Streamlining recruitment, tracking, & onboarding processes
Customer Support Offering 24/7, personalized assistance & resolving queries swiftly
Marketing Synthesizing data across channels to optimize digital campaigns & tailoring campaigns
to individual preferences to increase engagement & conversion rates
Supply Chain Management Optimizing inventory & delivery, anticipating needs, & refining logistics
Manufacturing Automating quality control processes, predicting equipment failure, & optimizing
production lines
Retail Personalizing customer recommendations, automating inventory management, & optimizing
pricing strategies
Finance Processing loans, detecting fraudulent transactions, & personalizing recommendations
Healthcare Analyzing medical images for early disease detection, automating administrative
tasks, & personalizing patient care plans

NOTE: We’ll Want to learn about AI's journey? If so, see our in-depth guide on AI Evolution to learn how remarkable this has been

How Automation Works: 6 Key Concepts

To understand how automation functions, it's essential to know six key concepts.

Concept Description
Workflow A sequence of steps to complete a task
Triggers Events that initiate the workflow
Inputs The data required for the automation to work
Logic The rules that determine what happens within a workflow
Action The steps taken by the automation
Output The ultimate result of an automation

1. Workflows

An automation is essentially a workflow (i.e., a sequence of steps to complete a task) that will happen automatically once triggered.

2. Triggers

Triggers are events that initiate the workflow. They can be a wide variety of events, such as:

  • an email being added to a certain folder
  • a user taking a specific action (e.g., clicking a button)
  • reaching a specific milestone (e.g., a sales target)

Once you start leveraging tools within automation, you’ll notice that different tools offer various — and sometimes distinct — triggers for initiating workflows.

3. Inputs

Inputs are the data required for the automation to work. Inputs can be text, images, sensor data, or many other types of relevant information.

For example, inputs of an email trigger may be the email body, subject line, sender's email, sent date, tags added, etc.

While inputs typically come from the initial trigger, additional inputs can be incorporated as the automation progresses through various actions.

This dynamic nature of inputs allows for flexibility and adaptability within the automated workflow, enabling systems to respond to changing conditions or requirements as they execute tasks.

4. Logic

In regards to automation, logic encompasses the rules that determine what happens within a workflow (e.g., processing inputs and determining the appropriate action).

Logic can be broken down into:

  • Basic logic: involving simple tasks such as moving data from one place to another
  • AI logic: involving complex tasks that are possible with the help of AI

Logic is created by establishing "if/then" statements to enhance the intelligence and adaptability of automation processes — enabling them to handle complex tasks precisely and reliably.

If/Then Logic

"If/Then" Statements

“If/then” statements specify that if a certain condition (i.e., the "if" part) is met, then a particular action or set of actions should be executed (i.e., the "then" part).

For example, if a customer places an order exceeding a certain, amount, then offer them a discount.

“If/then” statements may involve filters or constraints.

Filters sort, categorize, or exclude data based on specific criteria to determine which subset meets certain conditions and should or should not be processed further.

For example, if an email is determined to be spam (based on a filter of content or sender information) then it does not get sent to the user’s inbox.

Constraints set limitations or boundaries on which actions can occur — ensuring that actions taken align with predefined rules and objectives.

For example, if a marketing campaign hits a certain dollar amount (i.e., the constraint) then no more money will be spent on that campaign.

5. Actions

Actions are the steps taken by the automation once the trigger has been activated.

A wide variety of actions are possible, with some being specific to the tool you’re using. Examples of some possible actions include sending an email or updating a record.

6. Output

An output is the ultimate result of an automation (e.g., a generated report, completed task, or the decision that’s made).

Outputs are generally created at the end of the automation... although not always.

For example, in iterative or continuous automation processes, outputs may be generated at various stages throughout the workflow rather than solely at the end.

6 Key Concepts Example

An Example of The 6 Key Concepts In Action

Let's consider the real-life example of Alex, a businessman who owns a medium-sized e-commerce store specializing in outdoor gear.

Alex wants to improve customer engagement and sales through personalized marketing but struggles to manage this manually due to the growing customer base and the vast amount of data involved.

This is where AI automation comes into play, leveraging the six key concepts outlined above.

  1. Workflows

    Alex sets up an automated marketing workflow using a comprehensive marketing automation platform that integrates AI capabilities and offers a wide range of features, including customer relationship management (CRM), email marketing, social media marketing, and analytics.

    The automation tool Alex chooses needs to be integrated with his e-commerce platform to allow for the seamless flow of data between his e-commerce site and the marketing automation tool. Depending on Alex’s e-commerce platform, he may choose a tool like HubSpot or Salesforce Marketing Cloud.

  2. Triggers

    The trigger for Alex’s workflow is a customer's interaction with his website, such as:

    • Viewing a product
    • Adding an item to the cart
    • Completing a purchase
  3. Inputs

    Inputs for the workflow include:

    • Customer data (e.g., name, email)
    • Interaction data (e.g., products viewed, cart additions)
    • Transaction data (e.g., purchase history, items bought)
  4. Logic

    The AI-powered marketing automation tool uses logic to segment customers based on their behavior, predict customer preferences, and suggest products they are likely to buy.

    For example, if a customer frequently views camping equipment but has yet to make a purchase, the logic dictates that this customer should receive targeted emails about camping products.

  5. Actions

    Based on the logic, the action taken might be sending a personalized email with a special offer on camping equipment to the customer.

    This email could include product recommendations tailored to the customer's interests — leveraging AI's ability to analyze past interactions and predict preferences.

  6. Output

    The output of this automation could be an increase in customer engagement (evidenced by higher email open rates) or more website visits — and, ultimately, increased sales of targeted products like camping gear.

The Result

In this scenario, AI automation allows Alex to create a dynamic, personalized marketing strategy that adapts to each customer's behavior and preferences — not only enhancing the customer experience by making marketing communications more relevant and timely but also driving sales by promoting products that customers are genuinely interested in.

AI automation, in this case, transforms a complex, data-intensive task into a streamlined, efficient process — enabling Alex to focus on other strategic areas of the business.

How Automation Works: APIs & API Wrappers

APIs & API wrappers are the tools used to accomplish automation.

Application programming interfaces (APIs) play a crucial role in AI automation by acting as the connective tissue between different software — and AI automation tools are essentially API wrappers... Don't worry, we'll explain.


Application programming interfaces (APIs) are tools that allow programs and software (e.g., customer databases, CRM platforms, and social media analytics tools) to communicate and share information.

APIs & The 6 Key Concepts

APIs facilitate the real-time exchange of data between different software within an automation workflow.

Put simply, APIs:

  • transfer inputs between different systems
  • detect triggers to initiate workflows
  • facilitate the execution of actions by enabling communication between tools

For example, an automation workflow that monitors inventory levels (i.e., inputs) in real-time can use an API to trigger a procurement process, or series of steps to acquire goods (i.e., action), when stock falls below a certain threshold — ensuring seamless and timely replenishment.

Options for Using APIs

While automation tools can streamline and enhance the integration process, they are not a mandatory requirement for implementing APIs.

You have multiple options for using APIs, including:

Build & Implement Your Own APIs
(Without Using an Automation Tool)
Implementing your own APIs without automation tools involves understanding
the API documentation, making API requests, handling responses, and integrating
the API functionalities into the business processes or applications. It’s a complicated
process that may be daunting for those with little experience.
Leverage Pre-Built APIs
(With or Without Using an Automation Tool)
A more efficient and cost-effective solution compared to building your own APIs
from scratch is leveraging pre-built AI APIs to integrate intelligent functionalities
into your existing applications and workflows.
Use Automation Tools to Integrate APIs Automation tools provide a user-friendly interface to the API (aka an “API wrapper”)
so that you can easily connect different software programs together to automate
processes and utilize AI functionalities in your workflows.

API Wrapper

The term "API wrapper" refers to software that provides a more user-friendly way to work with an API by removing the complexity of directly interacting with the API.

You can think of an API wrapper as a translator that enables you to use APIs without getting lost in the technical details or as a middleman that takes care of the complex interactions needed to use APIs.

Almost every automation tool on the market is essentially just a wrapper for APIs.

Benefits of API Wrappers/Automation Tools

The beauty of using automation tools is that you don't need to be a coding expert to make them work.

A few added benefits of API wrappers include:

  • User-friendly simplicity, with many providing drag-and-drop interfaces to set up connections between apps & software easily
  • Customized functionalities tailored to specific use cases or workflows, e.g., a social media analytics automation tool may fetch & analyze comments on a post — without you needing to understand the complex series of API-related steps involved
  • Additional logic that provides an extra layer of error handling compared to handling errors on your own

By eliminating the complexity of directly interacting with APIs, API wrappers make AI technologies more accessible to a broader range of users — offering a simplified way for businesses to leverage AI automation in their operations.

AI Agents vs. AI Automation Tools

We are at an early stage in AI agent development, but progress has been rapid — and they are set to revolutionize how we work.

The primary distinction between AI agents and non-agent automation tools lies in agents’ capacity to learn, adapt, and autonomously make intricate decisions — setting them apart from non-agent automation tools, which, though reliable for routine tasks, necessitate explicit instructions for each scenario.

By surpassing the capabilities of non-agent AI automation tools, agents offer a more dynamic and optimized workflow approach. You only need to specify the desired outcome, and the agent will execute the tasks on your behalf.

Because they provide sophisticated solutions in dynamic and complex scenarios, AI agents prove particularly valuable in environments where:

  • Conditions change rapidly
  • Personalized responses are essential
  • Complex real-time data analysis & actions are required
Supply Chain Management Example

Supply Chain Management Example

In supply chain management, a non-agent automation tool typically functions based on predefined rules and workflows (e.g., reordering stock when inventory levels reach a set threshold) but lacks the ability to comprehend or adjust to complex, unforeseen changes in demand patterns or supply chain disruptions.

AI agents, on the other hand, can:

  • Learn from historical data, analyzing past supply chain performance, demand patterns, & external factors (e.g., seasonality or market trends) to grasp intricate relationships and anticipate future scenarios
  • Adapt in real time, monitoring data streams from various sources like point-of-sale systems, online platforms, & IoT sensors in warehouses and dynamically responding to sudden changes in demand, supply disruptions, or other unforeseen events
  • Predict future demand, enabling proactive (vs. reactive, like with AI automation tools) inventory management & logistics planning
  • Autonomously take action, responding to a potential issue (e.g., a sudden surge in product demand) or opportunity by adjusting orders with suppliers, rerouting shipments, or optimizing inventory distribution across warehouses — without waiting for manual approval
  • Continuously improve, enhancing their strategies based on outcomes & new data

Selecting An Automation Tool

The types of automation tools available range from user-friendly low-code/no-code platforms (meaning that they require zero, or very little, traditional coding knowledge) to more sophisticated systems that offer extensive customization for experienced developers.

For automation beginners, it’s important to choose ones that:

  • Meet your specific business needs
  • Are accessible to your level of expertise (making low-code/no-code tools a great option)
  • Integrate well with your existing tech stack, which will minimize headaches, disruptions to your workflow, and/or the need to purchase additional software

It’s also beneficial to know that anything you’re doing within these automation tools can easily be pulled out and implemented in your own product or process as well — meaning you’re not permanently locked into specific AI tools.

Available Automation Tools

With automation tools becoming increasingly important in the modern workplace, there are a plethora of automation tools available for you to use… and this list will only continue to grow.

While certainly not the only options out there, two prominent automation tools are Zapier and Make.

Both offer AI-powered features as well as integrate with a wide range of software and apps — with Make offering 1,200 integrations and Zapier offering 6,000+ as of March 2024.

And while they both perform the same basic function, there are key differences between the two.

Tool Zapier Make
Ideal Users Beginners/non-coders Those with some programming knowledge
Key Differentiators Easier; Large user community More customization; Advanced features
Unique Benefits User-friendly for simple automation needs Historical data; Robust error handling;
Custom integrations
Pricing (as of Apr 2024) Limited free plan; Pricing based on tasks performed Limited free plan; Pricing based on features


  • Ideal Users: Beginners or those with no coding experience who need simple automations and work with popular apps
  • Key Differentiators: Easier to use than Make & large community of users
  • Unique Benefits: 3 paths & 3 nested paths for simpler automation needs
  • Pricing: Offers a free plan that’s limited to 1,000 tasks per month; Pricing is based on tasks performed, which can become costly


  • Ideal Users: Those with some programming knowledge and/or complex automation needs
  • Key Differentiators: More customizable & advanced features than Zapier
  • Unique Benefits: Excels at handling historical data; Offers the ability to observe the automation process as it happens & robust error handling; Allows you to create custom integrations
  • Pricing: Offers a free plan with limited features; More cost-effective than Zapier for many users because pricing is based on features vs. tasks

How To Choose Between Zapier & Make

The best choice for you mainly depends on your specific automation needs and their complexity. You may want to choose…

  • Zapier if you’re new to workflow automation and are seeking an intuitive interface & simplicity in creating basic workflows
  • Make if you need to automate many tasks or require complex integrations and/or real-time scenario monitoring


Need help setting up automations with Zapier? Use the Automation Consultant by Zapier GPT, which will help you discover opportunities for streamlining your workflows across various apps — and guide you through setup.

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Two Futurepedia Automation Tool Directories & Other Resources

At Futurepedia, we believe that automation is not merely a trend but a transformative shift… and quite likely the next wave of AI.

That’s why we created two directories to help you find the right tools for you:

AI Workflow Automation Tools Explore 80+ AI automation tools
AI Agent-Based Tools Discover 25+ AI agents

Also, feel free to check out these other resources:

AI Glossary Learn 50+ Key Terms to Master AI Jargon