The industrial revolution or ‘first machine age’ was a period of huge technological progression. It enabled manufacturing to be scaled up drastically, and this industrialisation also supported improvements in transportation, communication and banking.
Today, we stand on the brink of the ‘second machine age’ – but what does this mean and how is it likely to affect the waste and recycling sector?
The second machine age is going to see the automation of many cognitive tasks, which will make software-driven machines substitutes for humans rather than complements. Examples often cited are the ability for ‘machines’ to grade students’ essays more objectively, consistently and quickly than humans or to better diagnose disease.
Not all the innovations coming out of this age will stretch into our sector, but there is little doubt that some emerging technologies will spark massive changes in the way we do business. Here are some examples of changing technologies that are going to drive significant development in the sector.
Exponential growth in digitalisation
This encompasses a huge range of elements but, fundamentally, it will give us the ability to manage huge volumes of data in realtime and create a truly paperless environment by driving business into the ‘cloud’. A practical example might be the use of jetbots, which are capable of learning from their experiences, to create a digital customer services environment.
This would be a million miles away from the decision-based ‘computer says no’ systems we all currently dread. It would, in fact, result in a highly dynamic and sophisticated experience for the customer, meaning that as little as 10% of enquiries would need to be dealt with by humans on the phone.
Internet of things
The way we interact with technology is also changing. Some of us will already be familiar with talking to Alexa, the virtual personal assistant, more than members of our own family, and this is set to continue. Bins with sensors are not commonplace but they are far from revolutionary.
What may be a game-changer is the ability to use Lora – a low-power wide area network that enables device–to–device or bin-to-bin connectivity. It allows us to understand the capacity in a particular area without the need for numerous 3G sims, which would currently make the cost prohibitive.
This is already happening in our sector. As previously featured in MRW, Volvo Group, together with Swedish waste and recycling specialist Renova are testing an autonomous refuse truck for use in the urban environment.
Sensors monitor the vehicle’s vicinity and the truck stops immediately if an obstacle suddenly appears in its path. The route is pre-programmed and the truck drives itself from one wheelie bin to the next. The driver can focus on refuse collection and does not have to keep climbing in and out of the cab.
This has the potential to reduce occupational injuries, such as wear in knee joints, and offers environmental upsides because gear-changing, steering and speed are constantly optimised for low fuel consumption and emissions.
This rapid innovation means it is now the right time for businesses to start to think about how they can best develop their digital strategies to improve and grow. In doing this there are a number of key considerations.
First, is their data of a sufficient quality to support these technologies? We can automate a truck but only if it has an address to go to – although the second time around it will have learnt the location.
Responsibility is also an important point. US giant Waste Management recently appointed a chief digital officer for the first time. This enables it to take ownership across the business, and means responsibility does not need to sit in a specific function such as IT or marketing.
Finally, there is the importance of harmonisation and the need to work together. This is true within an organisation and across the sector. By working together, we will be able to harness the power of technology and data to accelerate rapidly the drive to a more resource-efficient economy.
Mark Abbas is chief marketing officer at AMCS Group