ZenRobotics, jätteenkäsittelyrobotti
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ZenRobotics is facing a major expansion: “The market potential for smart waste processing is enormous”

Wed, 12/22/2021 - 13:46
ZenRobotics, a Finnish company, has rapidly become the leading international designer and producer of smart waste processing robots. Many of the company’s customers aim to profile themselves as pioneers of the circular economy, and the need for waste processing is increasing everywhere. “In practice, our growth potential is unlimited,” says Tuuli Mäkelä, Head of Marketing.

When ZenRobotics launched the world’s first waste processing solution based on robotics and artificial intelligence just over a decade ago, the Finnish company’s customers were trailblazers. Waste treatment was a low-automation process carried out mainly by humans. The world was not ready for the idea.

“The market needed to be taught a new way of doing things,” says Tuuli Mäkelä, Head of Marketing.

ZenRobotics is now the world-leading designer and producer of smart waste processing robots. The Finnish company flies the flag for the circular economy, operating in 17 countries in Europe, North America, and emerging Asia.

Most waste is still processed manually, but change is underway.

“There is an understanding that the sector is large and in a state of transformation. Many of our customers aim to profile themselves as pioneers of the circular economy. A few years from now, plants will be fully digital,” Mäkelä predicts.

Construction and demolition waste is no longer sent abroad for processing

The latest innovation in the industry will be revealed in Finland at the end of 2021, when Remeo’s next-generation waste facility will be built in Vantaa.

“Our customer’s facility is fully robotic and automated. The customer invested EUR 35 million during the pandemic to build this. ZenRobotics’ 12 robotic arms sort construction and demolition waste. It is no longer necessary to export it for processing outside Finland,” Mäkelä says.

In addition, the waste processing plant will process one-third of Greater Helsinki’s waste.

Tuuli Mäkelä, ZenRobotics

Next generation. “When Remeo’s next-generation waste facility opens in Vantaa, it will no longer be necessary to export construction and demolition waste for processing outside Finland,” says Tuuli Mäkelä, Head of Marketing at ZenRobotics in the “mega-plant”.

A new plant based on artificial intelligence was completed in autumn 2021 for Eberhard, a Swiss company that is another of ZenRobotics’ customers. The plant manufactures high-quality alternatives to virgin construction materials and cements using recycled material. ZenRobotics’ robots pick impurities out of rock materials.

According to Mäkelä, the company covers a wider range of applications than any of its competitors. The company’s robots are able to sort industrial waste, rock materials, metal, timber, and plastic. In recent years, the company has expanded into the processing of household waste, where the robots sort small pieces of packaging waste, such as different types of plastic, fibres, cardboard, and metal.

“As a company, we are facing a major step forward. The market potential is enormous, as the demand for waste processing is increasing everywhere,” Mäkelä says.

Legislation and safety issues

According to Mäkelä, the targets and requirements related to the circular economy in Europe are causing consumers to take an interest in the matter and acting as powerful drivers for ZenRobotics’ customers.

“EU legislation imposes the obligation to increase the proportion of recycled material in products. New solutions are needed in order to fulfil this obligation,” Mäkelä says.

The construction and demolition field is also facing new obligations concerning purity and the proportion of recycled materials.

“It is not spoken about as much, but it accounts for one-third of Europe’s waste streams. This is a big share, but it is a less sexy topic than household bottles.”

“It is good that there are also other companies talking about the digitalisation of the waste sector. It stimulates the field and raises interest in solutions.”

The need for change in Europe and North America has been further driven by the ban on importing low recycled waste into China.

According to Mäkelä, the impact of this on North America differs from state to state.

“The drivers of change are efficiency and employee safety. The working environments are harsh. The work can be dangerous, especially if the items are heavy and sharp.”

In addition, the coronavirus pandemic has raised the issue of the risk of infection from household waste and the sorting work that people carry out in close proximity to each other. This has also accelerated growth in the sector.

The economic benefits also street customers’ decisions. Robots can work around the clock. However, in countries where the wages are low, expensive robots may not currently be an attractive proposition.

According to Mäkelä, the industry has reached a decisive turning point. Competitors have entered the ring.  

“It is good that there are also other companies talking about the digitalisation of the waste sector. It stimulates the field and raises interest in solutions,” she says. 

However, the largest competitor is still manual sorting.

Plenty of interest from consumer brands and retail

Around the world, ZenRobotics’ main customers are waste processing operators, but interest has risen among consumer brands, retail, and other industries, such as the chemical and forestry industries.

“Operators outside the sector are gaining interest in clean, waste-based material for their own production,” Mäkelä says.

“We ensure that these clean materials remain in circulation and are used again, as the circular economy requires.”  

ZenRobotics, jätteenkäsittelyrobotti

A trainable robot. In principle, robots can learn to recognise anything, and ZenRobotics teachers its customers how to train their robots. Robots can pick valuable items out of waste streams.

Some companies have sought to integrate waste processing into their own ecosystems.

“A good example is the retail chain Lidl, which expanded into the waste business when it acquired a major waste processing company in Europe. Lidl’s products use a lot of plastic, and the company wants to increase the share of waste-based materials in its own packages. In an ideal world, discarded Lidl bottles would be returned to production and circulation as new bottles.”

What can the robot identify?

In principle, robots can be taught to recognise anything. They can pick out impurities from waste streams or, conversely, recover valuable items. Plastic in household waste can be distinguished from other materials based on the shape, colours, and quantities.

“The outcome is unique to every customer. We also teach our customers how to train robots themselves,” Mäkelä says.

At present, almost 100 robot installations are operating around the world.

”When we consider the number of waste processing plants in the world, our growth potential is practically unlimited.”

Naturally, some facilities use competing technologies. According to Mäkelä, they enable a purity rate of about 90% for household plastics.

“If our smarter technology is used for final processing, the rate is over 99%. This is what our customers demand, as they sell pure materials to their own customers.”

And the development does not end there. In the future, machines will become even smarter.

“Technology and the precision of artificial intelligence are advancing every day. In principle, we have endless possibilities to train artificial intelligence to recognise different materials.”

Text: Marjo Vuorinen

Photos: ZenRobotics