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RDS & AMP: Building a Resilient Business with AI and Robotics

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At RDS, we provide commercial, industrial, and residential recycling services throughout Southwest Virginia.

Improving MRF Economics & the Workforce

Just a few months ago, when unemployment was low, it was tough finding people who came in on time and wanted to do the sorting we need. At that time, we installed systems from AMP Robotics to help with the labor shortage we were experiencing. AMP’s robots have helped us to better manage our employee base, allowing us to stabilize our sorting workforce and improve productivity. We also had an opportunity to shift two positions paid for through the cost savings of not adding hard-to-find people. 

We hired an individual with a background in robot technology for a new management position. We also retrained one of our existing sort line employees, and paid him more, to help with daily maintenance on the robots. The robots don't require a lot of maintenance, but we need someone to clean the suction cups and screens and provide general oversight. By retraining an employee for a better career opportunity and creating a new, higher-skilled role, we’re aligning our staff with optimization and improving MRF economics.

Works With Your Infrastructure

Another benefit to working with AMP is how quickly you can get up and running. Their units can be dropped in with no changes to existing infrastructure, usually over a weekend. Since installation, they’ve done little retrofits and tweaks to our system to ensure it’s meeting our expectations. In fact, it’s exceeded them. We are getting more picks per minute now than we did when the robots were first installed. They keep getting better! 

Navigating Sudden Changes & Challenges

We, along with the rest of the industry, experienced several changes as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. For one, there’s been much heavier residential volume due to folks staying home, while commercial and industrial volumes dropped off. We’ve also had instances where employees haven’t shown up to work, or had to take some time off. We’ve fielded extra questions about safety and had to put a policy in place around personal protective equipment (PPE) like gloves and masks. We’ve started wiping down our machines more regularly and implemented social distancing measures. Through all this, the robots have not missed a beat, and they don’t have to worry about PPE. 

We’ve seen more cardboard on our lines, thanks to the Amazon effect, as people stayed home and ordered things online. And with people eating out less, instead cooking at home, more basic items—tin cans, plastic bottles—are ending up in the stream. Along with these changes, people seem to be recycling more, and there may be some newer recyclers, which is generating heavier volumes. These factors are producing additional contamination, which is another challenge. If it weren’t for the robots, we’d probably be looking at two to four additional people to handle the greater levels of volume and contamination we’ve seen.

Fully Operational & Meeting Demand

The good news is we've already deployed AMP’s robots, which are helping us weather the crisis. We have four robots powered by AI that we use for quality control as well as sorting. We’ve maintained full operations and can handle the heavier volumes of recyclables driven by shelter-in-place orders and rapidly changing consumer behavior. We’re meeting the increased demand for paper and cardboard while protecting our employees and controlling costs. Despite some employee absences, the robots have allowed us to recover high volumes of recyclables to take advantage of demand pricing. 

We’re running at full capacity because AMP’s robots are there all day long, and the robots aren’t charging us overtime. They work at the same speed consistently, whether fresh in the morning from a cup of coffee or at the end of a 10-hour shift. Without the robots, we’d see residue coming off the line and items that should’ve been caught. We don’t see that anymore. AMP’s robots are designed to operate in tough conditions, like the harsh environments you come across in recycling.

More Commodities, Higher Value

With AMP’s software, we can pick additional products we weren’t before because of the faster speeds and the ability of AMP’s vision system to identify different materials in the stream. We’re extracting additional commodities, and getting a cleaner product because we’re removing contamination that might’ve slipped through in the past. AMP’s technology offers the flexibility for us to decide what we want to sort as picks per minute increase. Plus, the vision system learns and expands its scope over time, too, so we get smarter as the system gets smarter.

Robots have been a huge benefit during this time, but even when the pandemic subsides, the shift toward automation and reliance on technology that AMP is leading will continue. As an industry, we usually make a little change, turn a knob, push a button, and we see what happens. We don’t get much feedback on the impact. Now, having real-time data on changes you’re making and how it affects your operation is a fantastic advancement for recycling. I see that trend continuing as companies like AMP keep innovating and integrating those advancements into MRFs. Data, transparency, and other insights are only going to make us more efficient and effective and allow MRFs to operate at a lower cost. 

For more information on AMP Robotics, please visit: www.amprobotics.com/amp-cortex-360

 

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