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The Future of Robotics in Waste Sorting General Kinematics

 | Highlights

The Future of Robotics in Waste Sorting

 by General Kinematics,

The future is here Artificial Intelligence and Robotics are reaching the capabilities that the media has romanticized for years.

Simple robotic arms used for repetitive functions have been a staple of the manufacturing industry since their introduction in the early 1960s. Fast forward nearly 60 years later, manufacturing and other industrial processes are about to take another significant leap forward. Based on the development of AI, robots can now think for themselves.

But have no fear—contrary to science fiction lore, these robots powered by artificial intelligence are not capable of conquering the world. They will, no doubt, take over a great many manual labor jobs however.

The key to the efficient use of robotics is the pre-sorting distribution of the product. Large bulky items that can be mechanically sorted through a standard conveyor system eliminates the amount of waste that the robot must sort through. In addition, waste that is evenly distributed on the conveyor as it enters the robotic area makes it easy for the sensors to select items for the robotic arm to pick up and sort.

Sorting with GK Equipment

In the waste sorting and recycling industry, companies like General Kinematics, manufacture heavy duty automated conveyor and sorting systems. Products such as the GK FINGER-SCREEN™ 2.0 Vibratory Screen, the DE-STONER® Air Classifiers for MSW, and Multi-Stream™ Recycling Systems, presort both household garbage and construction debris by means of vibratory screening technology. Heavy materials are separated from lightweight materials while the vibratory function of the system evenly distributes the waste along the units.

No matter how extensive the presort process is, manual sorting is still needed to properly identify metals from plastics, paper, and wood products. The manual labor portion of the sorting process can be dangerous to workers and has spurred the venture of AI to this application.

The Age of Robots with Artificial Intelligence (AI)

Automated processes are too expensive to be rebuilt for every design change and upgrade needed—so they have to be highly flexible and modular so that new equipment can be added. These new AI robots are installed over the current conveyor belt systems and use visible-light cameras along with laser technology to control spider-like arms with grippers. Thanks to a flexible gripper, the robot can handle objects of various shapes and sizes to eliminate the need to resize the waste before processing. The machine uses algorithms to accurately recognize and target items as they travel along the conveyor belt, and then grab and toss the items from the conveyor into the proper sorting bins at an average rate of 60 picks per minute.

Multiple types of waste can be programmed into the robot’s AI computer, and a single arm can pick up to four different types of material with high precision, reaching up to 98 percent purity. These robots can also be programmed to pick only the more valuable material and reject the rest as waste.

According to Waste Management World, “Intelligent robotic systems can process almost any given waste stream, and sorting capabilities can be redefined for every new market situation—even on a daily basis. Furthermore, increased flexibility in recognition gives plant operators the possibility to explore new use cases.”The next step in the process is to compact, bundle, and ship the sorted materials to processing plants.

Since the 1950’s, the warehouse and distribution industry has been using something called an Automated Guided Vehicle (AGV) to move pallets of material from delivery trucks to storage shelves and then retrieve them when called. Early models followed a rail or track that ran along the floor. However, modern versions have become fully automated and have sensors that can read bar codes that identify the product, and move around the facility by utilizing magnets or lasers to follow markers or wires in the floor. But, in just the past five years, more sophisticated vehicles equipped with AI capabilities and video cameras are being programmed to use vision to identify objects and move around the floor to specified locations.

The Future of Robotic Automation

The future of AI is very close to becoming a reality and the time is near when the processing of waste will become fully automated. Waste will be sorted by robot pickers, AGVs will transport bins full of sorted material to the compactor where it is automatically compressed and bundled, and from there it will be transported to the shipping docks where an AGV proficiently loads the trailer of an 18-wheeler.   

How will robots and AI affect current employees in the waste processing industry?

For the most part, employees will be stepping away from the intense manual labor roles and into machine maintenance and computer programming positions. A human staff of two or three computer technicians will monitor the process from a clean room or catwalk to make sure all systems are working properly. These technicians can also change the algorithms to account for various types of loads that are being processed.

If there is an equipment breakdown, trained in-house mechanics will quickly diagnose the problem and either fix or replace the part(s) causing the problem. Because time is money, and the fact that waste continues to come into the facility at a constant pace, it is important that a competent staff be available at all times to handle any situation as fast and efficiently as possible.

As the industry looks to incorporate these advancements in technology, you can count  on General Kinematics to continually innovate products and services within the waste industry, contact us today.

General Kinematics Corporation, incorporated in 1960, was established to market, design, and custom fabricate innovative vibratory equipment for the foundry, recycling, mining, and processing industries. Today the company continues as one of the world’s largest suppliers of vibratory processing equipment and has evolved into an industry-leading EPC firm. Headquartered in Crystal Lake, IL, General Kinematics has seven global locations providing engineering and support to a world-wide customer base. GK is a third generation, family-owned company and is ISO 9001 certified.