AI Powers Waste Recycling

| Manufacturing

6-axis LR Mate robots automate the detection and sorting of dry mixed recyclables

Robotics specialist, Fanuc, is helping Recycleye to improve waste handling methods using AI assisted robot picking technology

Support from automation specialist FANUC UK has helped a growing recycling tech company to make major changes affecting the waste management sector with its AI-powered approach to sorting recyclable materials.

London-based Recycleye is using proprietary AI vision technology in conjunction with FANUC 6-axis LR Mate robots to automate the detection and sorting of dry mixed recyclables, traditionally a largely manual process. This innovative system, called Recycleye Robotics, is producing impressive results including an increase in sorting accuracy of up to 12% and improved line output of up to 10%, helping waste operators to boost their bottom line and providing a partial solution to the problem of ongoing labour shortages in the waste management industry.

Founded in 2020 with just four members of staff, Recycleye now employs over 45 people and has an installed base that reaches across the UK and Europe. According to CEO Victor Dewulf, having FANUC by its side from day one as a strategic partner has been instrumental to the company’s rapid growth in automated waste management. “FANUC has been a key enabler in the success we’ve achieved so far, and they’re central to our future ambitions. They really put their faith in us and the product we set out to deliver.”

Transforming traditional sorting methods

Recycleye Robotics uses AI-powered (Artificial Intelligence) computer vision to identify every single item in complex waste streams. The FANUC LR Mate robot which sits at the heart of the system then automatically separates those recyclables into different material classes such as plastics, aluminium, paper and cardboard. The most accurate and efficient AI robotic picking system globally available at the present time, it can operate around the clock, picking up to 33,000 items per robot over a 10-hour shift.

For Recycleye, choosing the right automation supplier and the right robotic system was critical to their technology’s success. “In the early days of our journey, we worked with the MTC. They recommended that we speak to FANUC when we were looking for our robot partner and from day one, we knew we’d made the right choice,” says Chief Technical Officer Peter Hedley. “The FANUC LR Mate 200 iD/4SC is the perfect accompaniment to our vision system. We were looking to bring new technology into a very established, traditional industry. Although mostly reliant on manual pickers, any robots already being used to sort dry, mixed recyclables tended to be large, heavy Delta robots. The ability to retrofit our lightweight system into customers’ existing lines at a reasonable price was therefore crucial.”

Compact and ultra-efficient

This ability to be able to deploy the system as a retrofit to existing equipment was a main draw of the LR Mate. As a compact, short arm, mini robot it is easy to integrate into confined spaces, making it the perfect choice for Recycleye Robotics. As a result, the Recycleye team can install a system over a weekend, with no need for the facility to shut down or operations to be suspended.

Hedley explains that in addition, the FANUC LR-Mate is ultra-efficient, using five times less energy than a Delta robot. And thanks to its sophisticated sensors, there’s no wasted travel – if it’s not gripping anything, it won’t move to the bin.

“Reliability was another a key factor for us. It can operate around the clock every day for eight years and still come back to the same millimetre point it has been told to move to,” he says.

Mitigating labour shortages

For materials recycling facilities (MRFs), there are a lot of benefits to using Recycleye’s technology, not least of which is that it offers a solution to the industry-wide labour crisis. A recent report by the relevant industry body revealed that 60% of survey respondents had struggled to recruit staff in the past year, forecasting 89,000 vacancies across the waste and recycling sector by 2028.

Hedley explains that the LR Mate robot can pick as accurately as a human worker, and the vision system is as accurate as a human eye. Robots don’t need to take a break, don’t slow down or get tired, and don’t leave the job or need replacing. This is crucial as it can be very hard to find manual workers for waste picking. Recycleye Robotics is more consistently accurate than a human worker and can work safely alongside human employees, thanks to its safety guarding.

“It can also easily handle the hazardous materials that are routinely found in sorting facilities, which can injure human pickers. It’s therefore an ideal complement to the existing workforce,” he adds.

Purity equals premium

Another benefit for MRFs is that materials that are sorted to the highest purity will command a higher price. Recycleye Robotics is usually used at the quality assurance stage of the recycling process, comprising both positive picking (e.g. any recyclables that have been missed) and negative picking (removing any contaminants such plastics in an aluminum line). This boosts sorting accuracy, increasing purity. And thanks to the system’s transparent traceability function – every item is scanned and the resulting data is visualised on a dashboard – demonstrating pick levels and proving the purity of the batch are made simple.

“Quite simply, for our customers in the MRF sector, investing in a Recycleye Robotics system ensures the future of their business by giving them a competitive edge,” Peter believes.

FANUC UK has been part of the Recycleye journey from the start. With 14 systems having already been installed across Europe in just three years and 25 FANUC LR Mates already purchased, FANUC UK’s Head of Sales, Oliver Selby, is confident that this is just the beginning for Recycleye.

“We wanted to be at Recycleye’s side from day one. We had very early engagement with them and put in place a plan that allowed them to de-risk their offering to the market. We conducted simulations and physical trials to make sure that when the product was finally released, it was going to work exactly as planned. The result is a system that allows a higher throughput than anything else on the market today and offers a superb, automated alternative to traditional sorting methods using a compact robot, which is easy to deploy, easy to install and with low lifetime costs,” says Selby.

Jonathan Newell
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