For those of us old enough to remember where it all started, sorting lines consisted of simple conveyors and human fingers guided by human eyes, but things have changed. Eddy currents, magnets and optical sorters do a lot of the boring, dirty work that was once the exclusive domain of a human sorter.
But, quality issues continue to persist, causing many of us to argue that human sorters will always be required to produce top quality/value recyclables for markets that demand better quality each year. Given that, it would be easy to conclude that we’re stuck with high labour costs forever. If only science fiction could provide a solution…!
Well, maybe we don’t need science fiction, because real science may be able to do it for us soon!
What’s the difference between human and mechanical sorters? In a word: “intelligence”. Humans have the miraculous ability to learn to recognize what recyclables should be extracted from a belt full of material and react to the ever-changing stream in front of them.
However, what we’re seeing lately is that the new robotic pickers may be on the verge of accomplishing the same thing, at speeds 50% faster.
These 3-axis picker robots are smart, their artificial intelligence can be taught to recognize right picks from wrong ones and with speedy onboard computing power, decisions to reach out and grab material can be made in real time. Their mechanical arms can react 50% faster than a human to grab the item and pull it off the line. Plus, they never get distracted, fatigued, injured or ill and their pick rate at the end of the shift is the same as at the start.
Are The Androids Coming?
Sure, but not to a MRF near you anytime soon. Human shaped android pickers are a long way off and will likely be too expensive to stand in a MRF. But, multi-arm robot pickers are here now. Apple’s 29-armed recycling robot, Liam began operating this year separating components of Iphones for recycling, while other inventions such as AMP Clarke Robot and ZenRobotics’ AI-driven sorter are in various stages of testing or use.
The next generation of robotic pickers have the ability to be retrofitted into any MRF by suspending them over an existing line, even in smaller, low tech, fully manual facilities. Their current level of artificial intelligence and sensor resolution is proving them capable of doing the job, so maybe it’s time to give them another look.
Depending on how many shifts you are operating at your MRF, the payback period on a robotic picker could be less than three years. However, MRF operators will need to be ready to accept change, including reduced local employment, in order to truly benefit from advanced robotics.
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