ZenRobotics lead the way in the evolution of efficient robotic waste sorting

In 2007, ZenRobotics was born. Its aim to create a new range of artificial intelligence (AI) controlled robotic systems that could handle extremely intricate waste sorting solutions. The synergy of the neurorobotics research group at Aalto University in Helsinki and sheer brilliance of Tuomas Lukka, a junior fellow at Harvard and Finland’s youngest ever doctor, lead to the creation of ZenRobotics, now one of the leading forces behind robotic sorting systems globally.

The HUB magazine, along with other leading industry publications, were recently invited to Helsinki, Finland by the Blue Group, ZenRobotics’ sole UK dealer, to get a special close up look at the new wave of robotics from ZenRobotics. The day began with a meeting at ZenRobotics’ head office and research centre in the centre of Helsinki. Tuomas Lukka explained a little more about the company and what they do “When I started this company we had a very forward thinking business plan and wanted to do something cool with robots. We realized that industrial robots were very good at making such things as automobiles, but these robots had reached a ceiling in terms of applications and no-one had been able to breach this and go beyond. We wanted to develop a new level of adaptability to the environment that no one else in robotics was doing commercially, so we decided to spend two years visiting various Finnish companies deliberately looking for problems and trouble-shooting them to try and come up with solutions. We visited many different types of businesses from bakeries and manufacturing companies, right through to waste sorting facilities.”

“After a while it started to become apparent that there was one underlying key issue in robotics, the ability for a robot to grasp objects that are not always the same size and shape or texture and colour. This is when we realized that recycling was a really good area for this type of difficult application to be developed. A robot achieving a 99% success rate at these tasks was ideal, as the problem here is so much more complex than the manufacturing industry. At that point we decided to make a robot that sorts waste for recycling!”

The new third generation of robots:
“Timo Taalas, CEO explained a little more about the new product, “We began to develop this new recycling system in 2009, and now have over 30 employees dedicated in the fields of research and software development. We believe that the new 3rd generation ‘trainable’ ZenRobotics Recycler (ZRR) is a revolutionary product that is transforming the recycling industry. It is not just a product that you install to do something that was already been done, it is a product that you install to create new functions and bring more flexibility to your operation. With a relatively small unit and a modular system, this maintains lower operating costs than conventional plants. A smaller footprint allows for installation on smaller plots of land or existing facilities with smaller structures. It also gives you the option to build profitable smaller plants, processing anywhere from 30,000 tonnes of waste per year, in comparison to traditional larger plants processing much more.”

“The system comprises a main sorting conveyor feeding the input material, a sensor unit containing multiple advanced sensors, and most importantly, the unique ZenRobotics Brain Control Software which understands what is happening on the conveyor belt and in-turn, accurately controls the robots. Each ZRR unit features one robot arm, incorporating a smart gripper which is capable of up to 2,000 picks/h. Within each ZRR arm there are four chutes where the robot drops the material. A typical installation comes with two robots sorting the waste. Being a modular system, more robots can be added if required. The robots are designed to be extremely durable and to survive in the harsh environment of a waste sorting station, and the parts that do wear can be easily changed without major disruption to the line.”

“The different kinds of advanced sensors within the system provide the data through which the ZenRobotics brain control software communicates to our robots what is on the belt, right down to the type of material and colour of each object. These sensors include NIR, visual spectrum, RGB, metal detection, and 3D laser.”

“The other very important issue is to teach the robot how to grasp the object, and this is achieved by training the robot, as you would a very young child. A child when picking new objects up would learn by trial and error on how best to grasp the object, and would remember the techniques that worked best with each type of object. This is exactly the same way in which our robots learn, and we have a training phase for the robots in each new environment, so that the AI has a clear understanding of what it is picking and how to do so successfully.”

“The other critical part of this process is the gripper, which has to be extremely flexible in what it handles, from very light objects through to very heavy items with lots of different sizes and shapes in between. The gripper that we have developed can cope with very small objects right through to objects that are up to 1.5m long and 50cm wide, and with a weight of up to 20kg. The robots also approach each object slightly differently using the AI, dependant on what the data has provided, so for example, the robot would pick up a heavy object a little slower so that it doesn’t slip out of its grip.”

“Feeding the robots in the correct way also has a dramatic effect, so we advise on the process around this, using different sensors on the line and varying the speed of the line. A typical plant will initially have a screening and separation process, using a ballistic screen or alternative, and screening out the fines below 100mm. The 2D lightweight material is also screened out prior to picking, leaving the 3D material which is then fed to the robot. Before it is fed, with some plants it also makes sense to have a buffer area where the material can be stored before being fed to the robots. Using this system, different parts of the plant can be operated at different times of the day or night, and the robots typically perform at around 85db so could potentially operate 24hrs.”

“Presentation of the material is really important. Material presented to the robots passes over a vibrating table to evenly present the 3D material making sorting more accurate and quicker.”

The benefits:
“A huge benefit of the system is that the robots can sort multiple fractions in the same spot, allowing for multitasking, and very efficient waste sorting. Each robot unit has four chutes, so each robot can sort four different fractions. More chutes can be added if required. The system will sort construction and demolition (C&D) waste very effectively, but can also be used for commercial and industrial (C&I), mixed inert, scrap metals, mixed rigid plastics, A-wood, B-wood, pipes and tubes and plastic bags by colour. The system will also cope with multiple input streams, so the same plant could process C&D waste on one day followed by another different stream on the next day, by simply changing the settings in the user interface (UI).”

“We have also added the ability for the user to train the robots themselves, by feeding them samples of new materials, allowing them full control over their system and their input streams. Also, as we continue to develop our ZenRobotics Brain Control Software and AI, all our clients will get the benefit by having their software monitored and updated remotely under our software plan. The whole system can also be monitored and controlled via a tablet or smartphone by our clients, allowing for key statistics to be delivered directly in real-time. Our clients include SUEZ Environnement in Finland, Baetsen Recycling in the Netherlands, Eberhard in Switzerland, the Shitara Group in Japan, Veolia in France and ML Environmental in the USA.”

The on-site visit:
We were then treated to an on-site visit to the nearby SUEZ Environnement facility in Helsinki, where we were able to see the system and robots working in a real-time environment. The waste facility included two ZRR units, with three robots handling 5tph which included the C&D fractions of metal, wood, stone and plastic. The results were very impressive, with the robots recovering over 80% of material on the line.

Mac Borkowski, Sales Director gave us an insight into how they plan to help new clients in the UK, “We are now working strategically with the Blue Group in the UK who are our chosen dealer for ZenRobotics, they have been tasked to provide a total solution to design new waste MRF plants which will recover up to 90% of material. Material feed to the robots is extremely important in how it is presented, so the overall plant design is key.”

“Blue Group and their recycling division BlueMac have developed various technologies that work seamlessly with our robots to provide an effective process. Blue and BlueMac can work with you to integrate the ZenRobotics systems into your existing plant, or they can develop a new plant for you from the ground up. A typical plant could include key machines and processes such as material handlers, ballistic separation, vibrating screens, conveyor systems, shredders, trommels, star-screens, hoppers, bunkers, feeders, balers and vibrating tables, all of which Blue and BlueMac can supply or manufacture through their breadth of range.”

“Assembled in a bespoke package, Blue and BlueMac can provide a full turn-key solution which includes our ZenRobotics Recycler working in perfect synergy with the rest of the site and the material flow.”

For more information on ZenRobotics please visit www.zenrobotics.com and to learn more about how Blue Group and BlueMac can help you with a bespoke solution in the UK, please visit www.blue-group.com or call 0345 217 8755.

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