Automated Collection, Tailor-Made

To many in the waste industry, automated collection is an idea whose time has come. If you are considering automating your refuse or recycling route, it's important to learn the bare facts, in-cluding: the types of au-tomation; the advantages and disadvantages; what criteria to use to evaluate your current operation; ways to phase automation into your current collection operation (integrate all at once or gradually); changes to existing systems (recycling, hauling and disposal); e-quipment needs; and costs.

The Definition In the world of solid waste, automation refers to mechanization. There are two types of auto-mation: semi- and fully- automated.

A semi-automated op-eration requires a worker to bring the container to the collection vehicle. A device mounted on the hopper engages the rim of the container and/or a bar in the container's side to hydraulically lift and dump the container.

An operation that is fully-automated requires a hydraulically driven arm to be installed onto each collection vehicle. From inside the cab, the driver remotely lifts and dumps the container.

Containers are the core of any au-tomated system. In fact, it is important to remember that automated operations are containerization systems - not vehicle systems.

Regular refuse containers simply cannot withstand the lift mechanism as well as the other rigors of automated collection. As a result, three containers have been designed for this method of collection: semi-automated containers, which must in-clude a bar and/or lip; automated containers; and dual-purpose containers, which can be used with either mechanical de-vice. Today the pure strain containers, as well as the amalgamated offspring, can be purchased from the same dealer.

Arms with curved pincers can collect containers in front of the vehicle. These pincers grasp and hold the container while it is lifted and dumped into the vehicle hopper. It then returns the container to its original position on the street. All of these marvels are controlled by joysticks, levers or buttons, which are mounted near the driver.

Why Automate? Although labor is critical to the success of an operation, it is also ex-pensive and it cannot guarantee efficiency.

On the other hand, high-priced machinery often breaks down, re-quires regular maintenance and lacks the ca-pability to think, improvise and change. Yet it can perform tasks that would require many human beings and it doesn't talk back, show up late or irritate co-workers and managers.

Although automating a refuse or recyclable collection route can re-duce time, injuries and people em-ployed, it also requires more equipment and customer cooperation.

For example, let's examine ABC Refuse Inc. The company's regular refuse vehicle and crew can collect "X" amount of refuse in "Y" segment of time. A driver and automated ve-hicle can collect the same refuse in a fraction of "Y". Now, an operation can produce the same amount of work with fewer employees and vehicles, or, more work with the same number of trucks and less employees.

Since automation reportedly re-duces collection time by a quarter of the original time, a 12 vehicle fleet with two people per truck reportedly can be reduced to nine trucks and nine drivers. In addition, insurance rates will be reduced since drivers won't have to lift containers. The streets will be cleaner because automated containers reportedly spill less refuse than regular refuse containers. The automated trucks, however, cost approximately 15 to 20 percent more than non-automated vehicles.

Analyzing The Benefits To determine if automation will benefit you, thoroughly evaluate your current operation and set your goals. Decide what changes you would like to see in your operation and determine what you're willing to pay for these. Factor in every aspect of refuse collection including recycling, bulky items, hazardous waste and dead animal collection.

This system only works if all customers have a container designed for automated or semi-automated collection. If a customer needs another container or a larger one, who will pay for it?

Determine who will be responsible for the supply, repair or replacement of the containers. Also, will the containers be rented, owned or delivered to the customers free of charge? Re-placement and repair systems re-quire maintenance and rental containers require an accounting/billing system (see "Database" on page 24). Lastly, will the municipal code or other laws and regulations have to be amended to accompany automation? In order to make a competent decision, these questions - and more - must be answered.

Decide what you want your container to do and ask for a warranty that guarantees it. However, be cautious: Products may work well in one geographic location but not in yours. In addition to calling customers from the manufacturer's list, consult your colleagues who have used that container in circumstances similar to yours.

Remember that savings will be lost if operators have to dismount from the truck to manually handle materials that aren't in automated containers. Also, filled containers are too heavy for manual collection; consider this fact when planning for backup equipment. The price of containers starts at approximately $35 each. While automated and dual-purpose containers may cost about the same, the latter can be used for combined manual and semi-automated collections.

Other factors to consider when switching to a containerization system include:

* Handling uncontainerized materials such as green waste, lumber, tree limbs, large boxes and furniture.

* Standardizing set-out point characteristics. Containers that are out of the arm's reach will jeopardize the whole system.

* Large containers. Containers that are 60 gallons or more cannot be collected manually.

A Smooth Transition If you have recently purchased a fleet of manual collection vehicles, semi-automated flippers will allow you to use a cart system with the same trucks. These carts also can be used during the gradual transition to fully-automated vehicles or as re-placements.

Let the economic factors of your operation determine how you will implement automation (gradually or all at once). If your operation has a young fleet of manual trucks, gradual containerization may be the an-swer for you. This method won't disrupt the public's routine and gives you time to gage residents' reactions. In addition, you won't have to purchase the equipment all at once and you can still enjoy benefits such as fewer injuries and lower insurance rates.

If a vehicle is no longer usable, the lifting devices can be transferred to other trucks. Containers, the biggest expense, can be purchased over a period of time. If circumstances change during the transition, you can adapt by speeding up the process, slowing it down or simply changing the entire direction of the project.

Automate now if your current fleet is older and you are already considering buying more trucks. Immedi-ate costs, including containers, vehicles, a public relations/educational campaign and a billing system can be daunting. However, personnel and insurance/injury savings will accrue sooner than with a gradual transition.

The switch to automation will not effect processing unless you are co-collecting refuse and recyclables in divided containers and bodies. On the other hand, standardized containers will make volume-based bil-ling systems easier to operate.

Collection Vehicles Size is an important factor to consider when purchasing trucks. A large vehicle, that will dump less, is recommended for vehicles that must travel long distance for disposal. Ty-pically, the bodies of these trucks are permanently mounted to the chassis thus, making the packing mechanism an integral component. The load is ejected by elevating the body or by using a ram, which pushes the contents from the body.

However, routes with narrow streets require smaller trucks with detachable bodies. With this configuration, the truck's chassis has a permanently mounted packing mechanism and a detachable body, which is sealed, detached and placed onto a larger tractor trailer for transportation to the disposal site. To keep the truck operational, an empty body is inserted onto the collection vehicle.

Both configurations can be used for manual and automated systems. Vehicles bodies are available in compacting or non-compacting models and range in size from 6- to 44-yard capacity, or more.

To help defray costs, consider re-furbishing older trucks by matching new automated bodies with older chassis.

Rear, side and front loaders can accommodate lifting devices and loading hoppers, including flippers mounted on bins permanently fixed to front end loader forks. (When full, the bins are dumped into the body.)

Arms (for fully-automated systems) are available from four to 13 feet and grab and dump containers of various sizes; the arms can be mounted in any direction on a refuse truck.

Timing is the key to automation. If 1995 is too soon to automate - don't worry, automation is here to stay. In the meanwhile, sit back, re-lax, stay in touch with your colleagues and plan to review your op-eration again next year.

Once you decide to automate your collection system, several important equipment purchases must be made. Of equal importance, however, is establishing, verifying and maintaining a collection database to keep up with e-quipment and customers.

Going beyond typical billing and route functions, an automated collection database tracks a cart's serial number and location, time of pick up, type of waste collected, driver's comments and, if the vehicle has a scale built into the lifting arm, the weight of the cart.

A dependable database will make your automation project successful and cost-effective. But be careful: If the database is not set up correctly, the painful catch-up effort will disenchant all system users and will frustrate every employee within the entire operation.

"Make sure your customer data-base or master file can be tied to the new cart and identification da-ta," said Manny Perez, the chief executive officer of Valley Vista Services, a private hauling company in City of Industry, Calif. "If it can't," Perez said, "you will have to re-write your whole database system."

All containers should be serialized and connected with identification numbers so that you can inventory your new fixed assets. From the beginning, make sure that you can connect and disconnect these numbers with your master file of service addresses on a daily basis, Perez suggested. He also advises potential automaters to start with a complete and correct master file.

Corlis Dobson, director of solid waste services of the City of Luf-kin, Texas, is developing a data-base for the 10,000 households within his city. Dobson anticipates his database will include more than 20,000 serialized and radio frequency (RF) tagged waste carts. When complete, the city's automated collection and identification system will be used to collect residents' unsorted and recyclable wastes.

Dobson recommends auditing present data before adding new data or even distributing ID-tagged waste carts. "It's time well spent," he said. "It will help you discover errors that can cause serious problems if they are left undiagnosed," Lufkin's director of solid waste services added.

To ensure a large selection of vendors, take the time to write a detailed request for proposal (RFP). Have an experienced system user assist you in drafting the request for proposal and consider the following:

* Will it be used to generate management reports?

* What maintenance functions do you want the system to perform?

* Is the cart history important to you?

* Will you require an inventory list of undistributed carts?

* Do you want the database maintenance software to automatically connect radio frequency identification (RFID) numbers with specific carts?

Also specify who is responsible for loading and verifying the initial cart distribution data. If you want a vendor to develop the database, detail where the initial address da-ta will come from and what your acceptance criteria are. To ensure a smooth integration process, let the vendors know which custom and add-on programs are necessary.

Before making a final decision, ask the vendors for cart distribution strategies. Consider a gradual switch to an automated collection database if the data can be loaded and verified without distracting staff from their primary job functions. Most of your staff will need training during the transition period, so it's very important to specify what kind of training and support you want the system vendor to provide.

Cities and private haulers vary in their start-up processes. For ex-ample, some municipalities use their water billing or property tax records to set up new data. How-ever, before the files are usable, more information, such as exact pick-up locations, must be en-tered.

Selecting a system is a time consuming process but, in the end, a carefully developed and ea-sy-to-maintain database will lead the way to a generation of automatic and efficient management information.