29-04-2013 Baetsen Recycling: sorted by artificial intelligence

Sorting of construction and demolition waste by hand will be history within a couple of years at Baetsen Recycling in the Netherlands thanks to a sophisticated robot from Finland. The recently-installed Euro 1 million ZenRobotics Recycler is expected to replace five employees at the conveyor belt by the end of this spring. Recycling International joined a testing day at Baetsen and learned how the industry can benefit from artificial intelligence. ‘It is safer, cleaner, smarter and more efficient, and we are no longer dependent on Eastern European workers,’ the company states.

By Martijn Reintjes


‘He never has a bad day, he never has a hangover, he never complains,’ says ZenRobotics’ project manager Juha Koivisto - with a big smile on his face - when asked to outline the advantages of a robot over human labour.

Koivisto is leading a team of six Finnish engineers and computer programmers. And at Dutch company Baetsen Recycling, based in Son near the southern city of Eindhoven, they are installing ‘the world’s first robotic waste sorting system’ - at least, that’s what the ZenRobotics Recycler is claimed to be. After the hardware for the robotic recycler was shipped to Eindhoven and installed by Busschers Recyclingtechniques, Koivisto and his team are focusing on the software.

‘Basically, we teach the brain of the robot what we want him to do: distinguish, sort and pick all kinds of metal, stone and wood,’ Koivisto explains. Installing and testing the software is certainly no one-day project. According to the project manager, it takes weeks to get the robotic recycler up to full-speed operation. ‘We pick up slowly,’ he says. ‘In the first two weeks, he operates at 40-50% of what he is able to. This gives us time to fix little diseases and it gives the brain of the robot time to learn from mistakes.’ The results in Eindhoven are monitored 24/7 by Koivisto’s supervisors at the ZenRobotics head office in Helsinki.


Bigger brain needed

Compared to the robots used in, for instance, the car industry, the ZenRobotics Recycler is far more sophisticated, says Rainer Rehn, chief commercial officer at ZenRobotics. ‘In car manufacturing, each robot performs only a limited range of movements, with known objects and with absolutely no environmental variation,’ he explains. ‘For waste operations those robots are useless, because every pick and every robot arm path must be different. So you need a smarter system with a bigger brain’.

The innovative robotic system eliminates the dirty work of sorting construction and demolition waste by hand. It is no secret that manual sorting exposes humans to microbes, dust, fumes and numerous hazardous substances. But there are many more issues at play here, such as the increasing shortage of raw materials as well as the high price and inefficiency of more conventional sorting processes.


‘We were impressed’

Baetsen Recycling is one of the first companies in the recycling sector worldwide to replace manual sorting with this innovative robot technology from Finland. ZenRobotics has been operating several test pilot systems at Sita in Helsinki over the last three years and now believes it’s time to conquer the global recycling industry.

Baetsen Recycling’s operational director Peter Lamers heard about the results at Sita and went to Finland to find out more for himself. ‘We were impressed, and I immediately felt this could be the future solution for a whole range of problems we have had to deal with for many years,’ he observes. ‘Our main goal was to find ways to replace manual sorting in order to prepare our company for further innovation and for 20%-plus growth in the years to come.’ Among other activities such as exceptional transport and container transport, Baetsen Recycling processes 800 000 tonnes of construction and demolition waste each year and turns over some Euro 50 million.  


The robot ‘never forgets’

At Baetsen Recycling, Lamers believes the robot will be the answer to almost all the challenges his company faces when it comes to manual sorting. ‘It is safer, cleaner, smarter and more efficient, and we are no longer dependent on Eastern European workers,’ he states. For manual sorting, Baetsen Recycling currently employs 58 Polish contractors because ‘you won’t find people in The Netherlands to do this work’, he insists. Every half-year, this band of 58 workers is replaced by a new group. ‘Extremely inefficient,’ Lamers labels it. ‘Every time, you have to explain how the work should be done. With a robot, you only have to explain once - and the robot never forgets’.

And there is another emerging problem, says Lamers. ‘Since the Polish economy is booming and loans are rising, there’s less need for Poles to look for better-paid jobs abroad,’ he points out. ‘As a consequence, our company has more and more difficulty in finding Polish workers. You don’t want that.’

The ZenRobotics Recycler is expected to replace five workers at the company’s conveyor belt. Each hour, one of these light (hand) picker models is capable of sorting and picking 2500 objects of up to 5 kg. When the system reaches its optimum level of performance, Baetsen Recycling will install more robotic stations. Indeed, the company expects to invest millions of Euros in robotic technology over the next five to 10 years.


Almost human: equipped with a pain sensor

The ZenRobotics Recycler is claimed to be the first robotic waste/recyclables sorting system in the world. Currently designed to handle construction and demolition waste, it reclaims valuable raw materials with the help of advanced machine learning technology. The system sorts out the metal, wood and stone fractions, and can also be upgraded to sort other materials such as rigid plastics.

So how does it work? A two-metre wide conveyor belt feeds material past a box containing up to 10 sensors, laser scanners and cameras. The huge amount of collected sensory data is then streamed into the ZenRobotics brain, the artificial intelligence component. In a fraction of a second, all the data are analysed by powerful computers. Following identification, the regular industrial automation robot arm, designed for heavy lifting, picks out the odd-form objects constantly and tirelessly.

The ZenRobotics brain combines all the sensor input and commands the robot accordingly. The robot gripper sometimes collides with objects and so the picker is equipped with pain sensors and a pain-avoidance reflex. Rehn says: ‘Just as humans need a sense of pain to survive, as a child learns not to put his or her hand in a candle, the robots learn what might hurt so as to avoid damage.’

For further information, visit ZenRobotics.com


Machine as movie star…

To be honest, Baetsen Recycling was not really familiar with the futuristic world of robots and the innovative technology represented by ZenRobotics, according to communications manager Rutger Algra. ‘We have always been a family-run, down-to-earth company of hard workers,’ he states. This is in stark contrast to the slick marketing machine of Helsinki-based ZenRobotics. On YouTube, you can find a professional film trailer of the ZenRobotics Recycler, presented as if it is a top-rated Hollywood movie star. One of ZenRobotics’ founders explains: ‘Our technology is so revolutionary that nothing short of a full world premiere with the mandatory trailer would do.’


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Bron: Recycling International april 2013