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Robots, AI, Trash

Save the planet by searching for a career in waste robotics

A lot of us in the waste industry always raise our eyebrows and get all excited when we see some character on the big screen portraying a garbage professional. Tony Soprano, anyone?! Sanford and Sons?! Well, these fellas had nothing on the character we’re focusing on today- WALL-E.

Well, we’re not actually going to write about WALL-E, but we will be talking about its cousins, the robots that are revolutionizing the recycling industry in 2022. Have a background in robotics or data? Help save the planet by steering your career trajectory towards the recycling industry.

Typical Applications of Waste Robotics

One of the first applications of recycling sorting robots was ZenRobotics from Finland, back in 2007. They began their deployments in the construction and demolition recycling industries- likely due to their advanced capabilities of discerning the difference between items like wood beam and plastic bucket and steel rebar. ZenRobotics was often focused on preliminary sort lines to remove larger objects at the typical curbside recycling facility due to their ability to remove heavy items with their pincers.

More often in recent years, robots have been focused on quality control of the value streams within a materials recovery facility (MRF). As prior processes like screens separate items by size and dimensionality, and optical sorters identify items by polymer or fiber type, robotics can provide an extremely efficient method for ensuring the final product recovered for each commodity is as pure as possible. 

These robots have artificial intelligence built into their scanning vision systems, which log all configurations and permutations of each item type. This “brain” then tells the robotic arm which item to grab and remove from the belt…often placing that contaminant into a chute to be taken elsewhere in the system.

For those new to the topic, you’ll commonly see three types of robots in waste management: SCARA, cartesian and delta. 

  • SCARA robots are basically like an arm bolted to the side of the conveyor. These are more often being combined with multiple arms to get the most picks and widest reach across the conveyor. Not needing a huge frame to house the arm, these can be installed on hard-to-reach conveyors or even incline conveyors.
  • Cartesian or gantry robots have an arm that descends from a frame on a track. The track can allow the arm to move across all coordinates on the X,Y axis. The simple set up of these often lead to cartesian robots being the least expensive to deploy. 
  • Delta robots almost have a ‘spider’ type setup, where they hover on a frame above the conveyor and descend onto the targeted item from a central resting area about 3 feet above the belt. 

Companies in the recycling space often use an “off the shelf+ robot body that can be customized, with many iterations coming from ABB, Fanuc or Omron models. However, as new players enter the market, many are building their own robots from scratch in order to expand capabilities in such an irregular environment like waste. One second the robot can be looking through plastics and then all of the sudden a basketball or bicycle can come through the stream- these robots have to be able to withstand these variations.

The Need

The direct punchline of this article is that the recycling system has historically relied on humans to sort waste items. Whether your local recycling facility has the most modern equipment or just has a set of conveyor belts, there’s likely a few humans on the line, using their eyes to scan materials for contaminants and then using their gloved hands to pull those identified contaminants off the belt. 

Sorters are desperately needed…with many facilities across the US operating at 30-40% staffing levels at the sorting level. This results in slower speeds of conveyors so that the team can ‘keep up’ and more contaminated bales getting sent to end markets because these sorters often can’t ‘keep up’. Not only is there a well-deserved stigma around this type of work- stinky and potentially unsafe, there are many other variables that can affect this situation. Our highest priority variable is a lack of good leadership. We often speak with MRFs who can’t keep their staff on site. While a certain percentage of candidates will not be reliable- we also see a lack of leadership training and accommodations for hourly employees at many of these facilities. 

Examples include facilities based in northern climates with no walls to insulate from freezing temps, a lack of refrigerators to store lunches and no effort to maintain the facility’s upkeep and cleanliness, making for a pretty nasty place to work but a great spot for spiders and bugs to enjoy. Pair that with a lack of leadership and coaching, and there’s a recipe for high turnover of human sorters.

While these issues need to be resolved, it paves the way for robotics. Robots can work all day without breaks, pick 60-100 picks per minute (humans average around 30) and don’t get sick.

The Talent Gap

The key roles we see being developed are at the robotics companies as well as the MRFs. Positions like data scientist, data analyst, process improvement, mechanical engineers, robotics software engineer and UX designers for embedded controls systems. Surprise!- the recycling industry is NOT the first place these talented folks tend to look when searching for their next career stop. But the talent that is working in these roles could help save the planet if their knowledge could be harnessed and input into these companies. 

While robots can assist with replacing humans for sorting roles, it also requires hiring managers to gain a deeper understanding of what talent needs to be on hand to service these units. Is your current maintenance team well staffed to be able to add the new technical aspects of servicing the hoses, arms and other checklist items? Is there an operations manager with enough bandwidth to create new standard operating procedures for these unique pieces of equipment? Do you have someone on staff who can collaborate with their fellow operations teammates as well as the robotics company to derive new insights on what’s being captured, how efficient the robot is and new strategic opportunities based on data from the AI vision systems? 

If not, now is a prime opportunity to recruit new talent. Need help? Let us know and we’ll look through our TalentScout network for potential talent, or help you develop the tools you need.

Here’s a link to our current roles with “robot” listed. Want to learn more about robotics in waste? Check out our other post on "The Companies to Watch: Waste Robotics and Artificial Intelligence."

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