ISA Interchange

Welcome to the official blog of the International Society of Automation (ISA).

This blog covers numerous topics on industrial automation such as operations & management, continuous & batch processing, connectivity, manufacturing & machine control, and Industry 4.0.

The material and information contained on this website is for general information purposes only. ISA blog posts may be authored by ISA staff and guest authors from the automation community. Views and opinions expressed by a guest author are solely their own, and do not necessarily represent those of ISA. Posts made by guest authors have been subject to peer review.

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How Automation Is Transforming the Recycling Industry

Modern recycling industry professionals are increasingly interested in how automation could boost their output. Stakeholders are increasingly interested in recycling, which means delivering results is more important than ever.

Many consumers want products made from recycled materials and will pay more for them. However, catering to that market requires recycling facility staff to be open to new technologies. \

Sorting Compost from Trash 

Many recycling robots complete repetitive tasks much faster than people could before. That’s one of the main reasons why it makes sense from financial and labor standpoints to invest in advanced machines and start using them in daily operations. 

One program in several Minnesota counties relies on artificial intelligence (AI) and robots to separate composted materials from the rest of someone’s garbage. This conveyor belt-driven system carries items at a rate of 73 feet per minute as a machine overhead scans the contents. 

More specifically, it uses artificial intelligence algorithms to identify bags of food scraps based on size and color. Once the system finds one, it triggers a robotic arm to sweep down and scoop up the container, separating it from other kitchen waste. 

However, artificial intelligence doesn’t correctly identify everything 100% of the time. That’s why workers train the algorithms through use, flagging them when they make mistakes. Such feedback results in continuous improvement that should gradually raise the equipment’s success rate. 

Saving Alumni from Landfills

Many people outside the waste management industry may not realize aluminum can be recycled an infinite number of times. More than three-quarters of the material ever produced is still used in some form today. However, when people dispose of aluminum with their non-recyclable items, it goes to landfills, ending the recyclability potential. 

Even when states offer refunds for aluminum cans, that approach doesn’t do enough to prevent people from dumping this material. However, one company has addressed this issue by using a robot estimated to stop 1 million cans per year from ending up in landfills. 

The robot uses depth-sensing cameras and AI to find used beverage cans. Decision-makers can choose a system that recognizes both plastic and aluminum. If the recycling line contains no aluminum, workers at the plant can switch to plastic.

The robot’s interface also offers up-to-the-minute information about the materials coming through the plant, making it easy for leaders to quantify the return on investment associated with leasing this advanced equipment. 

How well does the machine work? It finds an average of three cans per minute or 32,000 per year. Those results provide an additional revenue stream for the recycling plant since aluminum is an easily recycled and in-demand material. 

Making the Clean Energy Transition Greener

Many people are open to using solar panels or electric cars if doing so allows them to contribute to a greener future. However, as some concerned individuals point out, it’s time to start thinking seriously about what happens to eco-friendly products at the end of their useful lives. Fortunately, many industries have put substantial effort into addressing this matter. 

In one facility, humans sort spent solar panels by brand and model. Some of the panels are still in decent shape, making them possible to sell to refurbishers. However, others are only worth working with because of their raw materials. In the latter cases, robotic arms equipped with suction cups pull the panels apart, separating the still-valuable components from them. 

Some experts believe that within a couple of decades, people will go directly to landfills to mine materials from solar panels. One recycling plant facility processes 10,000 pounds of solar panels per hour, collecting 100 pounds of useful copper during that period.

People are making similar progress with the lithium-ion batteries used for electric vehicles. Decision-makers associated with one such recycling plant in South Korea have partnered with an automation provider and believe the vendor’s technology will extract enough raw materials from batteries to supply 400,000 new electric vehicles per year. 

Finding recycling solutions like that one is particularly important due to the many existing challenges of sourcing new raw materials for batteries. Many researchers are working on power sources, but tackling this issue from multiple angles is critical to achieving meaningful results. 

Assigning Specific Tasks to Robots 

Recycling plant managers can handle automation opportunities in various ways. Some identify specific challenges and look for automated solutions that can reduce those issues. When the leaders of an Irish recycling plant determined how to use robots, they chose to give each machine a particular responsibility. 

For example, two robots dealt with contamination on a mixed paper recycling line. Another robot was installed in a part of the factory that handles aluminum cans. The fourth robot reclaimed beverage containers from a residual line. This recycling facility receives mixed recycling from approximately 400,000 residences in Dublin and the surrounding area. 

The plant also processes plastic, paper, aluminum, and steel for reuse. The facility’s busy nature made it necessary to figure out an approach that would keep output high and allow workers to deal with growing recycling volumes. 

Leaders settled on a system that uses computer vision algorithms to identify each item in the waste stream. Then, an accompanying robotic arm picks up the recyclable material and transfers it to the correct bin. 

Decision-makers report that this approach has improved picking accuracy for certain tasks and helped the facility reduce costs. They also appreciated that installing the system was relatively quick, occurring over two weekends and outside the location’s operating hours. 

Automating with Precision 

All industries have numerous options when deciding how and when to deploy automated recycling solutions. Leaders should refrain from automating processes for the sake of it. Better results come from looking for current process shortcomings and exploring how automation could bring improvements tailored to the company’s budget and goals.

Ellie Gabel
Ellie Gabel
Ellie is a freelance writer who also works as an associate editor for Revolutionized.com. She covers the latest innovations in the tech and science space for an audience of industry professionals

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