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Learning robots are the best pickers

Baetsen Recycling’s sorting cabin in the Dutch town of Son is an impressive sight.

Not long ago, the spacious cabin hosted up to 20 manual sorters. The site processes 150,000 tonnes of construction and demolition and commercial and industrial waste annually.

Since the beginning of 2015, the staff have been accompanied by two waste sorting robots. The aim is to decrease the cost of waste processing while cutting dependency on sorting staff, who are becoming difficult to hire.

Before installing the robotic system, Baetsen was heavily tied to manual labour. Director Peter Lamers explains: “We were looking for alternative ways to reduce our dependency on manual sorting for the years to come because finding people who are both motivated as well as skilled was becoming harder every year.”

The company’s recently installed ZenRobotics Recycler (ZRR) system replaces an earlier model that had been in operation since 2013. The benefits of the latest system come from stable performance: “Humans are simply not able to stay concentrated while performing the physical sorting work for an entire shift. The robotic system brings endurance that a human just cannot deliver: non-stop accuracy and speed.”

The Baetsen facility boasts state-of-the art technology such as an electric excavator that does the pre-sorting of waste. This waste is then screened before it reaches the robots. It is important to get rid of fines and oversized objects that might complicate the sensor recognition.

In the sorting cabin, the waste goes under a module that contains multiple sensors to scan the materials. Within seconds, the system makes a decision about which objects to pick and separate. The high-speed robot gripper picks up the designated object and throws it in the correct waste chute. At Baetsen, the robots recover mainly wood, ferrous and non-ferrous metals as well as inert fractions.  

But it is easy to switch the sorting task when the incoming waste changes. If preferred, the system can reclaim various grades of wood, rigid plastics and cardboard.

The ZRR is built using standard industrial components such as sensors and industrial heavy-duty robots. Such robots are typically operated in highly controlled environments where they repeat pre-programmed sequences. But in waste processing it is impossible to predict exactly what is coming down the sorting line.

So the ZRR relies on realtime sensor data and software algorithms that allow the robot to make autonomous and instant picking decisions.

Timo Taalas, ZenRobotics chief executive, says: “The information the system collects allows us to introduce features and skills to the robots. In that respect, the ZRR is not degrading over time but actually constantly improving.”

The collected data is also available to ZenRobotics’ customers. “Imagine getting realtime statistics about your waste composition: that information is not typically available in the waste industry,” adds Taalas.

Baetsen is one of the first recyclers to adopt robotic waste sorting technology. The company understands the importance of staying ahead in technical developments, especially when operating in a market with strict environmental regulation.

Lamers says: “We are ambitious, and the better we are able to recognise waste materials, the more we can recycle. The ZRR helps us to do that because it can recognise differences between materials that even the human eye cannot see.”

In the near future, the company plans to install more robots to the sorting line. Lamers adds: “We want to keep innovating and reach the maximum level in recycling raw materials. We are convinced that robotic sorting will bring us closer to our goal of being a zerowaste society.” 

Suez uses robots in Finland

In Helsinki, Finland, the world’s first robotic sorting station installed is operated by Suez Environnement. The process is designed around three sorting robots which represents the most optimal set-up.

The sorting station is fully automated except for the excavator that feeds the conveyor. Timo Taalas, ZenRobotics chief executive, explains: “We wanted a simple process that does not require heavy investment.” This low investment and operating cost makes decentralised waste processing with robotics a viable option.

Pre-processing consists of a screen, a storage bunker and a vibrating feeder that evens out the waste feed to the robots. The storage bunker enables sorting around the clock. “You can fill the bunker during the day and when the excavator driver goes to get some sleep, the robots continue their work,” Taalas says.

  • Visitors are welcome to visit the site in Helsinki. For more information contact ZenRobotics at:

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