There is a technology revolution on now in the field of improving recycling equipment performance and systems to recover a wider variety of commodities. In the last five years, new sensor types, better resolution, and higher speed automated sorting machines have become the standard. Add into that list robotic assisted recycling and this investigation sound almost like a science fiction short story, but it is real and it is now. The need behind this all is twofold: the way products are made is changing rapidly and the products themselves change faster. Some examples of this are the makeup of vehicles containing more plastics and onboard computers, ever changing portable electronics becoming smaller and thinner, plastic packaging incorporating new bio-polymers, and carbon fiber proliferating many products. This list of product changes could make up a book, but the theme is easy to see with this simple list. What is being done? Universities and companies that develop sorting and recycling techniques are embracing new technology and commercializing it to market quickly. Recyclers now have more tools at their disposal, but need to keep on top of new trends which this brief interview series introduces. I have personally worked on several projects with Dr. Karbasi over the last 5 years and found him to be a leading researcher in this field. While we focused on E-scrap, his research applies to municipal, metals, and many other types of recycling and recovery. Thanks to Dr. Karbasi for his time in answering the following questions. Please enjoy.
What does NSERC do and how is the research being done at Conestoga College in Cambridge, Ontario, Canada tied to E-scrap?
The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) of Canada is an agency which runs several research funding programs to primarily support Universities and Colleges doing research in partnership with industry, on a local and national level. It is somewhat equivalent to the US National Science Foundation (NSF). Among these research funding programs is the Industrial Research Chair for Colleges (IRCC). This program is intended to support leaders of research at the College level who have an established research record to sustain and grow their line of work. The grant is awarded on a 5-year term and is renewable for two additional terms. In 2015, Conestoga College applied for this funding to expand their research in the field of E-scrap. A very novel and unique Industrial Research Chair in Advanced Recycling Technologies for Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) was awarded in April 2016 and the program officially started in September 2016.
Over the years of working with various E-scrap companies, I noticed significant needs and opportunities for developing new technologies to address the pressing challenges within the industry. Our two major project streams are conducted in our state-of-the-art advanced optical sorting and robotic research labs. Our research is designed to address the shortcomings of existing technologies as well as targeting innovative solutions that are specifically related to the novel applications of robotics, machine learning, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) in demanufacturing and modern warehousing.
What is your role there and how what types of work did you specialize in prior?
I am the Chair of the Industrial Research program in Advanced Recycling Technologies for WEEE. My responsibilities include: overseeing and expanding research projects, engaging researchers and students, securing additional internal and external funding to sustain and grow the research program, collaborating with other research centers and foundations, networking within the industry and related associations, working with policy makers, and knowledge dissemination.
A background in automation and robotics and over 25 years of experience in industry and academia has prepared me for this role. Prior to this, I was a professor in Mechanical Systems Engineering and a researcher focusing on advanced recycling technologies for 10 years at Conestoga College.
How did you start investigating the E-scrap recycling sector and what caught your interest?
For decades, the manufacturing industry has benefited from advanced technologies, and the level of integrated automation and robotics is very significant. Billions of dollars are invested into the development of automatic technologies for different sectors of manufacturing each year, but there is a huge gap between the level of advancement within manufacturing and in recycling. Recycling has a huge merit to protect our scarce resources and environment for our generation and many generations to come. It promotes the concept of circular economy, which advocates turning waste into resources instead of landfilling. This inspired me to identify a niche area for automation and robotics to assist the Solid Waste Management industry in general, and I think E-scrap is the niche that I was looking for.
In your work with robotics, where do you see them fitting in an e-scrap recycling plant and how soon before we see them in commercial operation. How would they compare to similar systems sorting municipal waste?
Robotics are already being utilized to sort municipal waste at a pick-and-place level. Machine vision and optical sensors identify the shape, size, and type of objects carried by a conveyor. Several robots communicate with the sensors and use their flexible gripper to grab and pick objects and place them into separate bins. The robotic technology is advanced enough to do pick-and-place tasks in E-scrap warehouses. For example, it can be used for pre-sorting intakes where different types of electronic devices need to be categorized into different bins or locations.
However, the application of robotics doesn’t stop there. We envision robots that are capable of conducting more sophisticated tasks, such as dismantling laptops, computers, televisions or smartphones. These robots would harvest valuable parts and components, and dispose of any toxic substances. They can even have some level of manipulation and locomotion to position and place the components safely for reuse. You may think of this as a long shot, but surprisingly there are far more sophisticated robots used for other applications, which encourages us to think it is not far from reach.
To bring this level of sophisticated robots to life, we need to develop the right tools and fixtures as well as a smart brain. Machine learning and AI have hugely advanced in recent years and, in my opinion, are ready to be employed to realize the applications we are discussing here.
What is the biggest problem to solve to allow robotic systems to be readily accessible to e-recyclers?
I somewhat touched on this question in my previous answer. The most important problem here is to develop “smart brains.” This requires a great deal of work to utilize and customize existing machine learning algorithms and artificial intelligent techniques such as Neural Networks, Fuzzy Logic, and Neuro-Fuzzy Networks. Developing a strong intelligent software is the key. It allows robots to be programmed for learning and cognitive thinking. They will develop a knowledge and experience base, be self-training, and will learn from their experiences.
We can then expect the robots equipped with AI and machine learning to effectively overcome the challenging tasks such as dismantling electronics with a high variety of types and models. They will be programmed to first remove any toxic materials and dispose of them safely, and then harvest the valuable intact parts for reuse. The remainder of materials can be either recovered by the conventional shredding method or further liberated and separated by the robot.
How would robotic systems for demanufacturing or sorting affect plant safety?
Well, robotics has been proven to be a great choice for applications in which high repeatability, consistent good quality, long hours of work, and flexible manufacturing are required. More importantly, however, robotics is an excellent alternative option when the work is putting operators at a health and safety risk. Tasks that involve working with, or even mere exposure to, toxic and explosive materials pose a great risk to human operators. Using robotics in demanufacturing will not only sustain and improve the solid waste management industry by harvesting parts and materials for reuse, but will also reduce the safety risk for human operators since electronics contain toxic substances.
We may be closer than we thought to robotic assisted recycling for E-scrap / WEEE recycling plants. We have seen it start to take off in municipal recycling applications such as Zen Robotics, Bollegraff Recycling Solutions, and new entrant Amp Robotics. However, I see E-recycling applications evolving differently and having more of an impact on some of the complex de-manufacturing and battery removal repetitive activities. And, I think Dr. Karbasi agrees.
Part 2 of our interview will be posted next week where we dive into new sensor technologies used for automated sorting in these recycling plants.