Thinking about adding artificial intelligence robotics (AIR) to your sorting in the form of robots?

Below are the top 10 things you will need to consider as you shop for solutions. This list includes questions you will want to answer concerning your own operations and questions for potential robotics providers, so that you can be sure you are ready for AIR and that you have found the best provider to fit your needs.

Questions for You

#1: Problems You Want to Solve

First, outline what issues you have at your facility that you hope to solve by adding robots. Go a step further and list all the problems—even ones you think are not related to AIR because there is a good chance they will be resolved when your new robots are on the job. These problems could be staffing-related, such as needing to add locker rooms or finding enough reliable labor in your area. You might want to reduce workplace injuries. Your challenges might be related to profitability and the desire to improve recovery rates and reduce contamination of sorted products. Perhaps your facility needs to grow in capacity, but you are constrained to the footprint you currently have. Ask yourself and your leadership team what currently needs to be resolved and what you feel might be a future challenge for your operations.

#2: Your Metrics

You can dive right into AIR without knowing your current metrics, but chances are that you are well aware of your numbers and you are considering adding AIR to your facility because you want those numbers to improve. Take the time to list out your current metrics and how you would like to see them change—like increasing your current throughput (tons processed per hour) and your capture rate. AIR brings an unprecedented abundance of precise, documented information to the table. This means you will have real-time, continuous access to operation reports and balance sheets. With this information, you will be able to improve your competitive advantage and streamline your bidding process. Your AIR provider will want to know how you plan on measuring success so that they can help you choose the right solution.

#3: The Fractions You Sort

This might seem obvious, but plan to talk about your current streams of waste that you sort and what you would like to sort in the future. This is what helps determine how many robots your facility will need. It is also helpful to know your current recovery rate for each fraction so that you can set benchmarks for your new robots.

A robot quickly and accurately sorts through a conveyor of waste.

#4: Your Goals: Current and Future

Beyond solving your short-term problems, what do you really want to achieve? If you have not already, take the time to outline some long-term goals for your facility. For example, if staffing was not a problem, would you like to sort 24/7? Increase revenue? Add a new fraction to your sorting? Minimize capital costs? Reduce greenhouse gases? Introduce organic waste collection to your service area without having to purchase separate carts, extra trucks and staff to manage it? AIR is your key to achieving those goals—you just have to know what you are aiming for and make sure your robotics provider knows them, too, so that they can provide the precise tools you need.


Questions for the Robotics Company

#5: Customer Service

First, you will want to know what to expect when it comes to customer service. Who will be your point of contact throughout the consultation process and sales transaction? Who will you be speaking to regarding set up and service? Do not forget that service goes beyond the first couple of months. Does this robotics provider have a dedicated person available to answer questions and troubleshoot for the life of the machine? Do you have access to the engineering team if you need a custom-designed robot? Make sure you feel comfortable with the experience and dedication of the company you will be working with.

#6: Tailored Solutions

Ask about the level of customization available to you. It is important to know if a company’s AIR product is a “one-size-fits-all” solution or tailored to fit the needs of each individual facility. While there are no wrong answers at first glance, each will come with its own set of considerations that you will want to know up front. For example, there will be a bit of work that needs to be done on your end to ensure the “one-size-fits-all” robots integrate into your facility, so there may be more time and labor required from you to get the robots set up. With the tailored robots, be prepared for easier integration and set up, but more time spent up front with your AIR provider as they design the right solution to adapt to your existing conditions. You will want to choose the option that minimizes capital costs and maximizes your operating revenue.

#7: Durability of the Robots

Be sure to ask about durability of the robots. Are the robot’s grips suited to pick the items you need sorted? What is the lifespan of the components used? Aim for robots that can hit the 100,000 hours of work mark with no problems. Next, ask if training will be provided so that you can perform maintenance and replace parts as needed throughout the lifespan of your robots. Your goal should be to have a machine that is rugged enough to get the job done with few problems, simple maintenance needs and the least amount of downtime.

Bags of trash are identified to the viewer with white squares around the yellow bags. They stand out from individual pieces of trash on the conveyor.

Robots trained to identify and sort out bags first identify them on the conveyor belt and make decisions on what to grab—far faster than humans can sort.

#8: Metrics

Now that you know your current metrics, it is time to learn what your AIR provider expects for your operation once the robots are installed. How will throughput change? What is the capture rate? How precise will the robots be and how will this be verified? This is the time to review the types of reporting offered and make sure you understand how you can use this to streamline your current reporting methods and how to set goals now that you are using AIR. With robots, you should experience nearly unstoppable sorting.

#9: Continuous Learning

Your business is going to change as the market changes, so you will want to ensure your robots learn and adapt with you. Ask how this process occurs and what you need to do to confirm that your robots are keeping up. The answer you want to hear is a combination of machine learning and network learning. Machine learning enables your robots to identify new products and better understand what you want sorted out and how to discern this from dozens of similar-looking items. This facilitates adaptation to new needs in the market and avoids loss. Network learning is how your robot makes intuitive leaps in sorting. You will want your robots to have global access to knowledge acquired by other robots so that they can learn much faster than if they were sorting in isolation and forced to experience each new variable in real time on their own. This network learning allows you to increase your competitive advantage. Continuous learning allows for the most precise identification of materials so that the robots are constantly adding value to your end products, so be sure to ask how your robots will expand their knowledge.

#10: Purchasing Options and ROI

Two big questions are: how much is this going to cost and how soon will I see a return on my investment? These are probably already at the top of your mind. You have a couple of options and these will vary by the provider, so do not be shy about asking this question until you find the right solution for your needs. You can purchase your robots outright or you can pursue “Sorting as a Service,” which is a capital-free, risk-free and hassle-free option for you to incorporate AIR into your facility. Think of it like computer software: back in the day, you would purchase a disk containing the programs you need, install them and they would be yours to use … as long as that particular version of the software was still in service.

Now, however, we pay for subscriptions to software that we then download for a certain number of users, and any updates that are needed happen automatically. Sorting as a Service is like that: you pay for what you sort based on your goals and the maintenance is included—instead of purchasing the robotic equipment outright. The robotics company you choose should ensure that you are always sorting according to the price per ton that you set when you discuss your goals. If you are able to sort above your benchmark and process more tons per hour, the price per ton paid to the robotics company decreases—which means your profitability increases. If you pushed human workers like that, you would be faced with overtime costs. With the Sorting as a Service model, the more you push your robots and scale your sorting, the cheaper your costs are and the more competitive you will be.

Making the Best Decision

Ultimately, you have to make the best decision for your business, and these 10 tips should help to get your started down the path to incorporating AIR in order to reduce problems, increase efficiency and increase profitability in a competitive global market.

This article originally appeared in the April 2021 edition of Waste Advantage Magazine.