Solid Waste & Recycling

Feature

The Finnish Line

There’s perhaps no better example of how the waste and recycling industry is becoming high tech, and not simply the collection and disposal business of yesteryear, that mechanization or, more specifically, the advent of robots.


There’s perhaps no better example of how the waste and recycling industry is becoming high tech, and not simply the collection and disposal business of yesteryear, that mechanization or, more specifically, the advent of robots.

But hold on — before you imagine Wil Smith facing off with an android, the robots we’re talking about here are (to date) stationary, of the kind that have been use for decades in auto assembly plants. (ct:Italic>See photo.) It’ll be a few years yet before human-like robots will walk around picking up waste, sorting containers, and perform all kinds of manual work for us (though I believe that time is coming). 

A good example of the state-of-the-art today comes (not surprisingly) from Europe. ZenRobotics Ltd. (www.zenrobotics.com) produces a revolutionary system it calls the ZenRobotics Recycler. This company, based in Finland, has succeeded in bringing robots to work in the demanding waste management environment.

All existing recycling methods and technologies now face a revolution.

“Robotic recycling is the most effective recycling method,” says Timo Haanpää, Communications Manager for ZenRobotics, “be the measure cost per tonne, tied capital, or upgrade paths.”

ZenRobotics Recycler (ZRR) reclaims valuable raw materials from waste with the help of advanced machine-learning technology. The core of the ZRR system is an artificial intelligence-based brain, which controls a robot arm, based on the input of numerous advanced sensors (e.g., near-infrared cameras and 3D laser scanners). As a result, the system can identify and pick valuable objects from a stream of waste on a conveyor.

Haanpää says the system is based on two decades of Finnish research into computational neuroscience; the product has no direct competitors , he states, and is currently being marketed in over 50 countries.

The initial market of ZenRobotics is the sorting of construction and demolition (C&D) waste. There’s plenty of that: the EU alone produces 900 million tonnes of C&D waste annually. The ZRR system separates metal, wood, and stone fractions from the incoming waste. Thanks to the unique AI-based construction, the system can be upgraded in future to handle various other solid waste types, like different plastic fractions.

Developments

One, the first overseas installation has been finished at Baetsen near Eindhove, in The Netherlands. This is also the first-ever two-robot system. On April 8 the company closed a deal with Lassila & Tikanoja, one of the largest waste management companies in the Scandinavian and Baltic region. L&T is installing a ZRR system in one of the most modern recycling facilities in the area, 30 kms from Helsinki. ZenRobotics is currently seeking distributors in Canada and the United States for its technology.

According to the company, in the 1990s many robotics giants tried, but did not succeed in developing systems capable of picking odd-formed objects, like waste. Traditional robot control just does not conform to the harsh real-life environment of waste management. Haanpää says the ZenRobotics technology succeeds because it’s based on the Finnish founders’ decades of research into computational neuroscience.

Lassila & Tikanoja Ltd’s net sales in 2012 topped US $900 million. ZenRobotics recently signed a framework agreement that streamlines the ZRR ordering process for all subsidiaries of Suez Environnement subsidiaries globally.) The agreement does not contain exclusivity or ownership changes between the parties.)

Guy Crittenden is editor of this magazine. Contact Guy at gcrittenden@solidwastemag.com


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