Taking Hi-tech Waste Sorting Mainstream: An Interview with ZenRobotics’ CEO

ZenRobotics, a Global Cleantech 100 company from Finland, challenges the recycling industry to smarten and automate its waste sorting system. Conceived of by two Finnish PhD scientists, the ZenRobotics Recycler™ relies on cutting edge sensor technology and artificial intelligence (AI) to analyze bulky waste streams, and to control the robot arms that sort the valuables. We spoke with Juho Malmberg, CEO of ZenRobotics, on his insights into what this pioneering company has in store in the next five years.

You are off to a strong start since your initial product launch in 2012. What are ZenRobotics’ goals for the next five years?

Robotics-based recycling is still a new thing in the Environmental Services industry, though some frontrunners are already utilizing the technology and learning how to take advantage of it. Over the next couple of years, we are working hard to get robotics-based recycling more into the mainstream. What we will do next with our product is to continue to improve its ability to identify and sort different fractions into recyclables.When we are talking about how to use the ZenRobotics Recycler (ZRR), almost every type of solid waste comes to mind.  Adding either new sensors, or new applications of machine learning to existing sensors, will allow us to continuously extend the list of possible recyclables, and to make this product more attractive and relevant to a wider array of potential customers. This is really an exciting challenge and we will be very busy with that over the next five years.

How do you see the market for bulky waste recycling, and where does ZenRobotics fit in?

We see that the market is there, the business opportunity is exciting. A lot of companies and customers in the Environmental zenroboticsServices and Waste Management industries all see the need for higher recycling rates and the potential value from higher purity recyclables. What is going on today is that half of all raw materials used just have one lifetime. The current trend towards a Circular Economy is all about ensuring that processes are designed right from the start, so that raw materials will have several lives.Our solution, the ZRR, fits really well into this big picture.

Are you seeing competition in your segment for automatic waste processing?

There is certainly some activity – for instance one Dutch manufacturer we know of, has introduced a robotics technology. I don’t say we welcome competition, but it is not completely a negative thing.  Because this is a totally new kind of technology, the more offerings that enter the market, the more mainstream it will become, which may lower the purchasing barrier in the recycling market.

So when will automatic recycling technology become mainstream?

It takes time because the whole Environmental Services sector is still a relatively conservative business, based on conventional and mechanical technologies. To jump into advanced robotics is a big jump, so customers need some time to adjust and to learn about the possibilities of the new technology, and then they will move. Of course, our role is to show such good results with our technology that it will convince even the most conservative people in the industry.In five years, I surely believe that robotics-based recycling will be one of those alternatives that every advanced Environmental Services company will be considering.

What challenges are you working on in product development?

zenrobotics2It’s been a busy year and we are living very exciting times right now. Our main project in R&D has been a 2nd generation product, to be launched by the end of 2014. Because the waste stream that the robot is manipulating is quite a violent environment, we have done a lot of work on the durability of the product. The ZRR Smart Gripper, which is used for picking the material, as well as the robot arm (the “muscle” of the ZRR) to which the Gripper is attached, need to be very resistant to all kinds of impacts in order to allow for 24/7 operations.This new product is really based on everything we have learned over the last two years. The system is totally a ZenRobotics design, but based on the best industrial components in the market.

What are some of the unique elements of the 2nd generation product?

Already our first product version used machine learning for both learning to recognize different materials, and to pick out the different objects. And this same technology is in the core of the new product as well. The big jump forward is really in the sheer power and capacity of the machine. At the end of the day it is about how many tons of recyclables the machine is able to generate from a given waste stream per hour. And the more capacity the machine has, the more it can also then turn a profit to our customers.

What ZenRobotics products are popular with your customers?

The Solar Power Pack is an exciting feature, which one customer has so far been testing. The ZRR power consumption is fairly low, about 10kWh, so if you consider it in a Finnish way, our system only needs about the same amount of power that a sauna heater does. So you can run your machines with solar power, when you have a large solar power unit on the roof. That you can have clean energy running this type of a recycling solution is like a dream come true from a cleantech perspective.


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