The digital island

The waste management industry is becoming digital – and hardly any company does this more clearly than the Finnish manufacturer of sorting robots, ZenRobotics. RECYCLING magazine spoke with the new CEO Wolfgang Schiller and with the sales representative for the DACH region, Thomas Baldt, about the strengths and weaknesses of robots, the challenges of the German market and the possibilities of digitization.

Article by Michael Brunn, published in RECYCLING magazine 5/2019 (Germany)

Mr. Schiller, you know a fair bit about robots – what do the robots of ZenRobotics do?Schiller: When you talk about robots, as they are used in automation technology, it’s usually a component that can’t do much on its own and is adapted to individual requirements. What ZenRobotics offers is a highly integrated solution optimized for the purpose of waste sorting. This means we don’t just have a robot, we have an intelligent combination of image recognition, machine learning, motion control with gripping and throwing and our many years of experience in waste processing. All this makes the product itself special because it is optimized for a specific application.

On a higher level, there is another distinctive feature: Traditional robots come from industrial automation and are generally used in a defined environment. When a robot is used to produce a car, it knows what to do for the next five years. It knows what the objects look like, how they arrive on the production line and what it has to do with them. The challenge for a waste treatment robot is the unstructured environment. Nobody knows exactly what arrives on the belt: What material is it? What does the object look like? How big is it and what color does it have? That is ultimately the challenge for our system. We can make it so flexible and adaptive that it can recognize, grab and sort objects in this unstructured environment. I think this is the essential difference to a traditional industrial robot.

Are there big differences between Germany and Finland in terms of technical developments? Would ZenRobotics also have been possible in Germany?

Schiller: Our system contains many established industrial components from Germany. I think it helps the Finns that they have very liberal corporate cultures and also have a tradition to develop controversial innovations. We Germans are more engineering-driven and very goal-oriented when we develop solutions. With the approach of trying out new things and seeing things from a completely different angle, the Finns have certainly had an advantage in developing and founding the company.

But when it comes to developing a series product and being able to deliver it globally and standardized, certain German engineering virtues are also required. We have the advantage of an international team with employees from more than ten European countries. This means we are practically no longer a Finnish company, but rather developing a European robotic system. We try to integrate experiences, competences and approaches from different countries and cultures.

Baldt: We have now arrived in Germany, which is very important for us as a Finnish supplier. It took a long time to sell robot systems in Germany. We achieved this much earlier in other countries. The Netherlands and Switzerland, for example, were 5 years quicker. Now we have also established ourselves in Germany, and if I may express it a little emotionally: For us, this is the first step towards the ultimate accolade. Personally, I am very happy and proud that we are active in the motherland of the art of engineering and have customers here.

How do you sell your robot technology to a customer? As you say, this seems to have been relatively difficult so far, at least in Germany.

Schiller: Several factors come together. A few years ago, robotic sorting was more of an exotic technology. We had to put in a lot of effort and pioneer work to inform the market. The fact that the topic is now attracting more and more interest in Germany in particular is ultimately due to the changed requirements for waste and recyclable material flows.

One factor is that legislation sets targets for further promoting material recycling. And due to the elimination of the sales channels to China, many disposal companies can only resell their material poorly. The recyclers need recycled material of a higher quality. This raises the question how a higher degree of purity can be achieved in recycling without investing in human resources, so that the recycled material can be reused. This momentum combined with the fact that we have proven the efficiency and performance of our products with various customers helps us sell systems in Germany.

Where do you see the limits of robot-based sorting technology?

If you look at the complete intelligence of our system, the term robot-based sorting technology might fall a little short. Today we have a digital island in traditional waste processing. For the first time, we are making it possible to digitize the waste stream and analyze it regarding objects and values. Now, for the first time, the question arises where to start digitizing the waste stream. Does this happen by the robot or much earlier in the process by optimizing conveyor technology and other machinery for it and preparing them for robot-based sorting. The technology can also be used much more widely in the entire process chain without a robot arm. Due to the higher quantities and the resulting drop in prices, it will be a lot easier to use a larger number of robot arms over the next few years.

The advantage of robot-based sorting technology lies in a very flexible system that can adapt to different requirements and waste streams. This means the entire system can be much more flexible. Of course, there will always be a combination with classic sorting technology. At the end of the day, however, it depends on how you can optimize the entire system. Of course, there are technical and physical limits. But in general, we are only at the beginning of this whole development. It is now a matter of using the advantages of robot-based recycling technology for designing new plants and also incorporating them into the plant concepts.

Baldt: From our point of view, it makes sense to shred as little as possible before the sorting process. Shredding always goes hand in hand with the generation of a fine fraction, which can only be separated with significant effort. Coarse pre-sorting, even with an excavator, is sufficient. Our system, the Heavy Picker, can also lift large, bulky parts up to 30 kilograms and deposit them in the appropriate bunkers. It is therefore a major concern for us to get involved in consulting with the customer and the plant manufacturer at an early stage. We have seen that German customers in particular have a clearly defined plant philosophy. They often think about a variant with manual sorting and a variant with a robot. From our point of view, this is not the best approach, since our system has certain prerequisites to fulfill its capabilities. That’s why it makes sense for us to be involved in the process at an early stage, so that we can provide our customers with comprehensive advice and optimize their investment.

What are possible barriers to further dissemination?

The biggest obstacle is the willingness of customers to invest in such a new process at all. It is not only a matter of choosing a location and placing a robot there, but also of understanding that the supplied waste stream requires a certain amount of pre-processing. That’s what customers need to understand.

I don’t see any significant limits regarding the technology. We use standard industrial technology that has proven over the last 40 years that it can carry out these processes in automation with endurance, stability and the necessary quality.

You have already hinted at it a little: Environmental legislation is currently playing into your hands?

Baldt: Absolutely. Germany in particular stands out, for example with the amended Commercial Waste Ordinance, which dictates very high recycling rates for recyclable materials. And then there is the Packaging Act, for instance. We almost see this as an atmosphere of departure. China no longer imports waste, and EU legislation has become stricter. Now we have to take this step to its logical conclusion. Many plants will require modifications, and new plant capacities will have to be created. Simple collecting and sorting will not be sufficient. We must create solidarity between waste disposers and recyclers. Only then can results be achieved.

Ideally, a chimney effect should be created by the need for recycled materials. We all know that recycled materials are subject to technical specifications. Based on these specifications, it is then decided in what proportion they can be added to the primary raw material. Perhaps legislators will have to tighten one or two screws a little more if the recycling and processing industry does not show enough willingness in the medium-term. Legislation helps but will not be enough by itself. We have to do something with the products.

Schiller: I believe that the advantages and benefits of our products provide the decisive reason why customers choose robot-based sorting. Of course, ROI also plays a role. Ultimately, the sorter alone cannot create an efficient recycling process all the way to reprocessing. We can already see today that producers are putting pressure on the recycling chain, that they want to ensure that they use recycled materials and thus demand different qualities from both the supplier and the sorter of recycled materials. And this is only feasible when it is consistent, when everyone makes a contribution. In the end, the investment must be profitable for the customer. Legislation provides additional buying incentives. But there should be an intrinsic logic as to why this technology makes sense.

Are there markets in which you see particularly great potential?

Schiller: I continue to see the Central European markets as key growth markets for us: Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, The Netherlands and France. The USA is a very strong market, and the export stop to China present them with major challenges. In addition, there are Asian countries such as Japan or Korea, and ultimately all of the Nordic countries. These are the main drivers. I think that the social perspective on recycling and waste separation plays a particularly important role. What is important is social recognition of the issue. From our point of view, this makes it relatively easy to identify the markets.

You said that the company needs a clear focus. Where should that be?

I am convinced that every company needs a clear focus. And as Steve Jobs said, the challenge is to focus on what you don’t want to do. We are operating in a high-tech environment where there are many areas of application. In recent years, we have invested a great deal in technology concepts and developed excellent solutions. For me, the focus now lies on concentrating on industrialization of these concepts. In the past, the question of feasibility and technologies was the driver. Today, the question is what to do to help the customer. We don’t need over-engineered systems. We have relatively clear and simple requirements. We know what our customers need, and we have to concentrate on that.

What will the robots do next? What are your plans for the future?

Schiller: The first step is to ensure a high degree of dissemination for the robot-based sorting system. This is the first practical challenge. As far as future prospects are concerned: I believe that digitization will be a major driver in waste processing. If we limit ourselves to the subject of robots, and this often only means the physical arm, it will not be sufficient. Our technology allows us to digitize the waste stream. The first customers are thinking about how they can recognize which waste they are receiving as early as possible in order to optimize the utilization of their plant. The robot arm is only part of a bigger picture. The main driver is the possibility of digitizing the waste stream. Our technology offers a wide range of possibilities for this, since the robots are not limited to a certain waste stream. Therefore, I think that the range of applications in waste processing will be much wider and that digitization is one of the enablers to optimize the processes. My vision is a completely digitized plant, where you can already see at the collection stage how the plant can be optimized and what economic yield can be expected at the end.