The robotics company that’s revitalizing recycling
There are plenty of people who feel strongly about the environment. They dutifully sort their recyclables according to the rules set out in their communities—glass separate, no Styrofoam, etc. But it takes another level of passion to optimize recycling efficiency to pave the way for a world without waste. You have to really get your hands dirty.
“It can be pretty nasty in these facilities. It smells bad, there’s rotting food, you’re getting splashed with old milk, flies are landing on your head. You have to be really interested in what you’re doing.” So says Dr. Matanya Horowitz, founder and CEO of AMP Robotics, which uses AI and robotics to sort through recyclables and reclaim as much raw material as possible for the global supply chain.
A love of sci-fi and the philosophical questions around AI as well as the environment drove Horowitz to this point. But when you’re trying to fix a bug in a sorting robot amid a funk of epic proportions, that passion gets put to the test.
Altruism aside, though, Horowitz will be the first to tell you recycling is a good business to be in. Thanks to AMP’s innovations, it’s getting better all the time.
By making sorting easier and less costly, AMP’s robots enable facilities to profitably recycle more materials. Take for example, the disposable coffee cup. Think about how many of those get used around the country every day. A lot of them don’t get recycled because the material they’re made from doesn’t fetch recyclers a lot of money per unit.
AMP programs its sorting robots to pick up materials with a higher return first and because they’re so fast, they can double-back and grab those coffee cups.
“What we do is have the robots pick more valuable plastic, so then when they have a spare moment they go and pick up the coffee cups, and in that way marginal cost to sort out the coffee cups is pretty much zero for these robots,” Horowitz said.
Now, the extra effort that wasn’t worth a recycling facility’s time suddenly is, and countless coffee cups stay out of landfills.
Multiply this enough times, and the sheer volume facilities can handle skyrockets. Some AMP clients have been able to expand from one daily shift to two or be more likely to run overtime because their marginal hourly costs have gone down. Others have been able to accept materials they couldn’t sort before such as aseptic cartons, which are made from a combination of paper, plastic, and foil—think a juice box or a carton of broth.
With help from AMP’s robots, facilities have revamped their operations and are able to better serve their communities, send more raw materials back into the supply chain, and make more money. That’s a win-win-win.
Pandemic rapid response
The reason Horowitz spent so much time around those flies and rotting food is that pioneering technology takes time to perfect. He founded AMP in early 2015, and the company installed its first robot late that year. He estimates it took about two years to get reliable performance out of the machine learning and computer vision. After a lot of blood, sweat, tears, and smells, use of AMP’s products throughout the recycling industry took off.
The main product is the AMP Cortex, a high-speed, intelligent robotics system that can sort, pick, and place materials with 99% accuracy. When COVID-19 hit, AMP started a zero-down, zero-interest lease program to help facilities with suddenly tight cash flows automate.
With the sudden rush to stockpile toilet paper and soaring demand for package delivery that accompanied the early days of the pandemic, paper prices rose. That was great news for recycling facilities. The trouble was those facilities were not designed for social distancing, and with not much known about the disease’s spread, many had workers afraid to sort through discarded materials potentially from the homes of infected people.
The Cortex leases helped facilities start automating almost immediately, Horowitz said, which allowed for safe operation and made materials readily available for packaging all those household staples, takeout containers, and deliveries.
Even without the robot, facilities can still use the AMP Vision system with a camera that identifies materials on a conveyor belt, indicating when there’s a spike in contamination, equipment ahead of the vision system isn’t working well, and the purity of commodity streams. For instance, if a load is supposed to be all No. 1 plastic, AMP Vision can determine how much of it actually is No. 1 plastic and what the other material mixed in is. “The buyers of those commodities can have more confidence about what they’re actually getting,” Horowitz said.
What’s on the horizon
From that initial period of trial and error, AMP has made great strides, perfecting its existing capabilities and working on new ones. Earlier this year, the company doubled the size of its engineering innovation lab for the development of new AI and robotic applications for the recycling industry.
“We’re aggressively growing pretty much all the teams in the company, and the engineering team is one of them,” Horowitz said. “We have new gripping technologies that allow the robots to sort more materials. We also have grippers that allow the robots to move even faster.”
One standard for measuring effectiveness is how many picks per minute a robot can perform. AMP’s robots currently sort at about 80 picks per minute, but grippers and technologies are bringing that number into the triple digits. That will enable the robots to be deployed in more areas of a facility and further improve quality.
The vision systems are also getting better. Whereas now they can make out the difference between, say No. 1 and No. 2 plastic, they’ll ultimately be able to pinpoint exactly what’s in the waste stream. “Ultimately, we want to be able to identify all this material at the brand level, to be able to say, ‘Hey, this is a 16-ounce Pepsi bottle, this is a Starbucks cup,” Horowitz said. “The more specific the chemistry that you’re able to sort out, the more value you can get.”
Separating distinct types of paper or plastics with a common dye or pigment will make life a lot easier—and more profitable—for recyclers.
“With technologies like ours and other technologies in the industry, the recycling world is getting healthier and stronger. We’re excited to be a part of that, and people can have confidence that what they’re putting in the bin can have an impact.”
Businesses are making money and helping the environment with a boost from AMP Robotics. That’s a smart, sustainable future.
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