The recycling industry is currently facing some challenges, but robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) can help recycling facility operators overcome these obstacles by making operations more efficient, helping recycling streams become cleaner and presenting opportunities for new end markets.
One company helping recycling facility operators achieve these goals via advanced technology is Denver-based AMP Robotics. Via AMP’s robots and AI systems, recycling facility operators can reduce the fundamental cost to their recycling process and boost their recovery and recycling rates.
Waste360 recently spoke with Matanya Horowitz, founder and CEO of AMP Robotics, about how robotics and AI can make facilities more efficient and positively impact the overall recycling market.
Waste360: How can AI and robotics help sort materials more efficiently and accurately?
Matanya Horowitz: The technology is built around the unique capabilities of our artificial intelligence, and a couple things make the technology powerful. It’s able to identify a wide variety of materials, and it also gives a comprehensive view of what’s going on in the facility and on conveyor belts.
If the AI is trying to track PET [polyethylene terephthalate], for example, it still gets the perspective on all the other materials so that you can understand operationally what’s going on in the facility. For the robot, it means not only knowing what it’s targeting but also knowing the environmental characteristics of the surrounding materials.
It also can help with targets and avoid certain materials if materials are stacked, for instance. This, in turn, helps improve the efficiency and the purity of materials that the robot is sorting.
Waste360: Many companies and municipalities are focusing on cleaning up their recycling streams. Can you talk about how robotics and AI can help with that?
Matanya Horowitz: These platforms are very flexible, so what we really emphasize to potential customers is our ability to install these systems with almost no retrofit to their existing lines. This means they can get the benefits of automation without really changing their operations.
We can typically improve a facility’s operations by bolting in the technology, but there have been some situations where changing how the material is fed into the system can have a big impact on performance. So, preparing materials for the systems can make the systems even better.
Beyond being relatively easy to install, these systems are a substitute for human labor in facilities. The robots are tireless, focused and able to consistently deliver the same input day after day, hour after hour. This best serves a lot of facilities because they may have challenges getting enough staffing, and even if they do have enough staffing, people can get tired and demotivated throughout a shift.
With robots, facility owners can count on consistently delivering high-quality material, and because AI identifies almost all the material on the lines, it helps provide a much better perspective of what the facility is delivering.
Waste360: How can robotics and AI be used as useful tools in domestic infrastructure?
Matanya Horowitz: Our perspective is that newer infrastructure will typically have more sensing available, but it will still have some blind spots where you don’t know how the material will flow in certain areas of the facility. It also still may be difficult to understand how much valuable material is coming out of the residue, so AI can be used to help fill in these blind spots.
Older facilities have these capabilities as well, but newer domestic infrastructure like paper mills and new plastics reclaimers offer even more of an opportunity for AI as concerns about purity continue to rise. Recycling facilities have to deliver high-quality, consistent material, as buyers have their choice of material, and if it’s not high quality, it will be hard to move.
Waste360: How can the use of robotics and AI help present opportunities for new end markets?
Matanya Horowitz: This is where quality plays a big role, as more people will be willing to consider recycled material for different applications if they know they will constantly get high-quality materials.
One of the things we’re particularly excited about is robots pairing nicely with AI. The robot system itself is happy to pick up almost anything you have in a MRF, and it doesn’t face any additional costs for adding additional materials to sort.
In many facilities, we find ourselves in a situation where the facility owner may have a couple target materials, but the robot is underutilized because it has more capacity to sort additional materials. Facility owners can then add other materials for the robot to work on in its spare time to make marginal materials more profitable to sort and sell to new end markets.
We’ve done this already with paper cups in Denver, and because the marginal cost to sort is so low, it creates opportunities for new end markets no matter where these robots are installed.
Waste360: Robotics and AI can currently only handle certain types of materials. Looking to the future, do you think these technologies will be able to handle more types of materials?
Matanya Horowitz: This will always be a huge focus for AMP, and right now, we are focusing on suction-based gripping systems that can do a lot with materials. They aren’t perfect, so we are continuing to do research and development on robotic grippers.
What’s exciting for us is that the grippers are quite strong; they can lift more than 10 kilograms. A typical municipal solid waste facility picks up materials that are half a kilogram or less, which means there’s a lot of capacity that’s still left over.
The new grippers we’re working on may weigh more or allow us to pick up heavier materials, so in the future, we do think we’ll continue to see a rapid expansion of materials these robots are able to sort.
On the identification side, we haven’t really run into many materials that we can’t identify, so it’s mainly about developing better gripper technology. Our robotics can have their grippers swapped out in about five minutes, so if facilities want to add a new material or upgrade their robots over time, they can simply swap out different components.
Waste360: What feedback are you hearing from customers as they integrate this technology into their facilities to help them combat some of their problems around recycling?
Matanya Horowitz: If you talk to a lot of our customers, what you’ll hear is that AMP is really living up to the promise of our technology and that they’re quite pleased with the system we’ve installed. A couple weeks after installation, we’re usually flooded with feedback and great ideas for new features and improvements for the system.
Some examples of enhancements include having the robot control more of a facility’s operations, increasing belt speed and screening more materials. These are all things we can do, but we’re being very thoughtful about how we’re deploying this technology and making sure that it only delivers value.
People also want robots to be faster, better and stronger, so we’re working on that, too.