Magazine Feature from Jan/Feb 2016

In Depth: Recycling Robots 2.0

Once suitable for only niche applications, robots are now being developed that can sort household recyclables and differentiate between construction wastes. What will this mean for the human workers? Does it mean the start of robot revolution? How accurate is the technology?

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Bild © SADAKO was started three years ago by Spanish twin brother and sister, Eugenio and Belén Garnica.

The Sadako Story

Called Sadako Technologies, the company was started three years ago by Spanish twin brother and sister, Eugenio and Belén Garnica. Eugenio had developed a successful career in nuclear plant services while his sister worked as an economist.

 

After quitting his job in nuclear, he joined forces with sister and third partner, Javier de la Ossa who had experience in start-ups and venture capital. Sadako was born. Initially, the company looked at developing software-based systems for the nuclear industry but realised there “wasn’t much opportunity in the nuclear sector because of the strict regulation”, as Belén puts it.

 

While lecturing at UPC University in Barcelona, Eugenio was asked by a student to help oversee a project on waste management in Spain. It was during this time that the spark happened: he realised the potential for advanced sorting machinery in waste.

 

The twins started out with €150,000 in public loans but soon realised that would not be enough to even scratch the surface of developing new technology.

 

“When we started, €150,000 seemed like a lot. We thought we were rich!” jokes Eugenio. “It has been much more complicated that we thought at the beginning.”

 

Three years later the company has spent nearly one million euros – the three founders together putting in nearly €200,000 and €240,000 coming from venture capital group KIC InnoEnergy SE. The rest of the funding has been soft loans from public organisations promotion R&D.

 

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© ZenRobotics

British pre-eminent scientist Prof Stephen Hawking once warned that the “development of full artificial intelligence (AI) could spell the end of the human race”. While we are many years away from AI taking over from humans in true Terminator fashion, technology has changed how we interact.

 

The rise of smart phones and apps have meant that electronic devices have become an extension of the body; a high tech major organ of communication. Being without it, for many, leads to what is now being called ‘nomophobia’ – the fear of being without your mobile phone.

 

While devices are becoming more integrated in our daily lives, one industry that perhaps hasn’t seen technological development as fast as others is waste management. Many material recovery facilities (MRFs) do contain teams of near infrared (NIR) advanced machines sorting through waste streams at a lighting pace. Yet, teams of waste pickers – people stood in lines working long and hard hours – still remain to provide final quality control; humans are still key to the operation.

 

One Spanish company believes it has struck upon a technology that can help bring the waste sector up to date and provide a cheaper, high-tech alternative to manual picking.

 

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© SADAKO was started three years ago by Spanish twin brother and sister, Eugenio and Belén Garnica.

The Sadako Story

Called Sadako Technologies, the company was started three years ago by Spanish twin brother and sister, Eugenio and Belén Garnica. Eugenio had developed a successful career in nuclear plant services while his sister worked as an economist.

 

After quitting his job in nuclear, he joined forces with sister and third partner, Javier de la Ossa who had experience in start-ups and venture capital. Sadako was born. Initially, the company looked at developing software-based systems for the nuclear industry but realised there “wasn’t much opportunity in the nuclear sector because of the strict regulation”, as Belén puts it.

 

While lecturing at UPC University in Barcelona, Eugenio was asked by a student to help oversee a project on waste management in Spain. It was during this time that the spark happened: he realised the potential for advanced sorting machinery in waste.

 

The twins started out with €150,000 in public loans but soon realised that would not be enough to even scratch the surface of developing new technology.

 

“When we started, €150,000 seemed like a lot. We thought we were rich!” jokes Eugenio. “It has been much more complicated that we thought at the beginning.”

 

Three years later the company has spent nearly one million euros – the three founders together putting in nearly €200,000 and €240,000 coming from venture capital group KIC InnoEnergy SE. The rest of the funding has been soft loans from public organisations promotion R&D.

 

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© SADAKO: Wall-B Picking a bottle

Robot technology

So what exactly is the technology? Called Wall-B, not to be confused with Disney Pixar’s Wall-E animated robot, Sadako’s sorting machines use suction pads to lift and sort household, municipal waste, such as cans and bottles. Each robot is estimated to have a picking cycle of one pick every three seconds, or 20 picks per minute. This equates to 1.8 million picks per year, or up to 200 tons of material. They are aiming for these robots to replace the human picking side of waste operations, rather than high-speed NIR equipment.

 

“We don’t want to compete against these machines,” says Belén. “The volume they can process is much higher than our robots. What we found in the industry is that there is a gap for cheaper sorting technology for medium waste streams, for which you don’t have enough valuable material to install one of these NIR machines, as it’s not cost efficient…Our technology is very similar to what a person can do. We strongly believe that this work is DDD (dirty, dull and dangerous) and that if robots have to replace any work, this is it.”

 

Eugenio says there’s a key difference to reduce the cost of the robot units.

 

“The only way of being cheaper is avoiding the use of infrared spectroscopy, which is a typical industrial solution in waste plants,” he says. “We are performing the detection using a normal camera and AI computer vision. Developing this is very complicated. It’s the main challenge of our project: we use a normal camera and we needed to add a lot of intelligence so the camera looks at objects the same way a human does. As people we don’t have infrared spectroscopy in our eyes, we have normal visual capabilities. That’s what we are aiming to do with our AI.”

 

Sadako essentially puts the pieces such as the robot arm, suction grabber and AI together and delivers the completed package to the customer.

 

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© SADAKO

Spanish deployment

To date, Sadako has two robots operating in Spanish waste plants. One of the companies, Ferrovial Sevices, is currently at the fine-tuning stage and is using the robot at the Ecoparc4 treatment plant, located in Hostalets de Pierola, Barcelona. It hopes the robot will be fully functional in early 2016, eventually sorting 125 tons per year of PET packaging material. The second is being used by a joint venture lead by Sacyr-Valoriza in the Maresme Integrated Centre for Waste Recovery, also near Barcelona.

 

“In the beginning, customers told us that it’s going to be difficult to pay for a robot that hasn’t been proven,” Eugenio admits.

 

As a result, a revenue sharing model is in place with the two Spanish waste companies. In essence, each robot has to earn its keep – revenue generated from its picked waste is split between Sadako and the client. Half goes to Sadako and the other half goes to the waste plant. For example, if the robot picked 200 tons of a material that was sold for €10,000, then the customer would take €5,000 and Sadako the rest.

 

Once proven, the company intends to sell the robots upfront at a cost of arounf €90,000 per unit, with an estimated return on investment of a year.

 

“Our system is of course cheaper,” says Eugenio. “To be cost effective we want the ROI to be one year. Normally a NIR machine costs three times as much as one of our units but then it would sort three times as much. So the ROI is the same as NIR units.”

 

By the end of 2016 the company, which now has a team of 13, expects to have sold four units and is targeting international sales the following year.

 

Rumoured to also be in discussion with major recycling equipment manufacturers, the CEO adds: “We have talked with other companies. It makes a lot of sense to have an agreement with a big industrial company. We don’t have industrial facilities or big workshops to produce equipment on a big volume so it makes sense to have an agreement with a big player.”

 

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© ZenRobotics

Finnish Innovation

Spanish innovation to one side, there is also robotic innovation coming out of Finland that has been focusing on construction & demolition (C&D) waste. When WMW magazine spoke to ZenRobotics in 2011 for its article entitled Rise of the Machines: Robot Recycling, the company’s “claw” based AI was being trialled in a SITA Finland plant sorting C&D waste. Since then, the company has grown at a fast rate, with its robots now deployed in the Netherlands, Switzerland, France and Japan. Most recently the company signed an agreement with the Blue Group in the UK.

 

“During the last two years we have met a lot of plant operators and spread the word about robotic sorting,” says Timo Taalas, CEO of ZenRobotics. “They are now more used to the idea that robots can be used in this application.”

 

Rather than target municipal, small and light weight, ZenRobotics originally designed its AI, or “brain” as we referred to it in the original article, to handle C&D waste. Instead of using suction to lift bottles like Sadako, it’s using a claw type gripper to lift heavier wastes.

 

A big development for the company, the CEO tells WMW, was the development of a second version of its technology. Called the “Next Generation ZenRobotics Recycler (ZRR)”, it can lift heavier objects and was developed in 2014.

 

“First of all we changed the robot model, which gave a performance boost of 50-80%, increasing picking speed and the ability to pick heavier objects,” adds Taalas. “The biggest improvement has been the reliability of the system. Treating heavy objects like 20kg stones is a demanding task for a robot. Now we have a robot that can really survive in that type of environment.”

 

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© ZenRobotics

We don’t need coffee

ZenRobotics still claims that its robot have the ability to sort for 8000 hours per year, compared to 1000 hours for humans, taking into account breaks. “The robots can be used in three shifts, seven days per week, so that’s roughly 8000 hours per year and the robots don’t require coffee breaks or anything,” adds the CEO.

 

Although current clients are not using the robots in this full three shift pattern, some are achieving 15 hours per day.

 

Another development is the ability to for this second generation robot to differentiate not just between different materials, say wood from brick, but to identify sub-fractions for materials.

 

The robots can also be “trained”. Talaas believes this flexibility makes the business case for buying a robot even stronger, as it can be trained if the feedstock for a facility, or regulation, changes in the future.

 

“We have had one case where one customer was previously picking all the wood into one chute,” he says. “When the business changed they suddenly wanted to pick different grades of wood so they could get a better price for the picked materials,” he adds. “We did the retraining, which took three days. After those three days the system was able to pick the new fractions and the customer was happy.”

 

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© ZenRobotics

Disruptive technologies

The robotic developments from the Spanish and Finnish companies are bound to upset some people. Both developments, albeit for different scales and applications, are designed to replace humans. This means man could be well be replaced by machine. Yet, like other industries, the waste sector has to evolve. Its dangerous and unpredictable nature mean that robots may be better suited than people for certain tasks.

 

Disruptive technologies by their very nature can turn an industry upside down. Just look at what Apple’s smartphone did for mobiles. Such disruption is often needed for an industry to evolve and to inspire other manufacturers with older technologies to take note.

 

Sadako is still in a very early stage of development. Once proven beyond the Spanish borders, it could have real potential. With ZenRobotics’ robot sorting stations now being used in Europe and Asia, the Finnish company is making great strides.

 

Prof Stephen Hawking may be speaking some truth: AI may not spell the end of the human race, yet, but it certainly could replace humans in waste sorting, making it safer and more efficient. And that can’t be a bad thing.

 

Matt Clay is a freelance journalist