ZenRobotics, Helsinki, announced several high-profile robotic sorting installations in European C&D facilities late in 2020. These installations, at plants operated by Finland-based Remeo and Switzerland-based Eberhard Group, respectively, will be operational in 2021.
Juha Mieskonen, head of sales for ZenRobotics, discussed how the company is working to advance robotic sorting in C&D applications both overseas and in North America, and detailed how these technologies are advancing to allow for greater efficiencies and more profitability for operators.
Construction & Demolition Recycling (CDR): Can you discuss how ZenRobotics robots are being deployed at Remeo and Eberhard Group’s facilities?
Juha Mieskonen (JM): Both Remeo and Eberhard are longstanding customers of ours and industry frontrunners in using AI-powered waste sorting robots. We are thrilled to be part of these two very different cutting-edge projects.
Remeo’s new materials recovery facility [capable of processing] 45 tons per hour integrates two different processing lines for waste fractions, combining both commercial and industrial waste (C&I) and construction and demolition waste (C&D). The advanced robotic system by ZenRobotics features 12 robotic arms and is based on positive sorting. Smart robots can be trained to pick an unlimited number of fraction models, which allows the recovery of double-digit numbers of high-value fractions such as different grades of wood, metal, concrete and plastic from the belt on the same go.
Eberhard’s new recycling plant [capable of processing] 200 tons per hour will convert mixed construction waste into valuable secondary raw material. Our robotic system includes two parallel lines with multiple robots and is based on negative sorting. The robots remove impurities from the waste stream and leave valuable materials on the belt. These high-quality materials are then converted into new building materials at the same plant.
CDR: Europe has a much stronger emphasis on landfill diversion than in the U.S. How do you see the use of robotics advancing in North American C&D applications?
JM: Yes, Europe has a strong emphasis on landfill diversion and also on material recycling as opposed to incineration. The objective is a circular economy, and regulation is a big driver. AI-based robots help our customers capture valuable clean materials from the waste stream and achieve desired recycling rates in an accurate, efficient and affordable way.
In North America, we see a big emphasis on market-based drivers such as increased profitability and improved cost-efficiency resulting from the use of robotics. Manual sorting is common, so occupational health and safety is also a significant concern, further heightened by COVID-19. Robots have the benefit of reducing human exposure and creating a safer environment for people.
We see great prospects in the North American markets, and we’re excited to partner with our local customers to help capture valuable materials in a profitable and safe way with AI-powered robots.
CDR: Are there certain facilities where robotics make more economical sense? What considerations go into calculating a ROI for this technology?
JM: Robots enable uninterrupted sorting and up to 24/7 operations, increasing capital efficiency and capturing more tons per day. ROI for the technology becomes [expedited] the more hours the robots are able pick. However, significant efficiency gains can already be achieved in single-shift operations. Furthermore, the technology allows for decentralized operations, reducing transport costs and also lowering associated emissions.
CDR: How has robots’ capacity for handling C&D improved over the last couple of years?
JM: Robots are becoming faster, more accurate and able to lift heavier objects. The robots also come with multiple arms, further increasing hourly capacity. Durability improvements have significantly increased overall equipment efficiency, so actual yearly processing time and capacity have also increased.
CDR: What about maintenance—what should recyclers know about upkeep and downtime?
JM: Maintenance and cleaning are needed just like for any industrial machine. Our robots are low maintenance, requiring some daily/weekly cleaning and monthly maintenance. When done correctly, the performance and durability of the robot increases.
CDR: How are these robots best used? What type of prescreening, sorting, etc., yields the best results?
JM: The robots can be retrofitted to complement existing operations, set up as a standalone waste sorting process or [be used as] the main sorting system for a fully robotized greenfield installation. These are multipurpose robots that can sort several fractions simultaneously. The technology requires no shredding, and the robot is best at picking 3D bulky objects from a constant, even flow. So, it is beneficial to screen out approximately 4-inch-minus (and under) fines and 2D foils prior to robotic sorting.
CDR: What do you envision the future to be of C&D recycling in North America?
JM: AI and robots have brought the advantages of industrial automation to waste management and are fast becoming mainstream, helping recycling facilities capture valuable materials in a more efficient, safe and profitable way. We see the future of the industry as fully automated and data-driven, and look forward to collaborating with our North American partners to continue to drive industry development.