As the world grapples with mounting environmental challenges, the need for sustainable development has never been more urgent. Without significant changes, we face escalating problems such as overflowing landfills, rampant plastic pollution, and resource depletion. If we continue on our current path, environmental degradation will worsen, affecting biodiversity, human health, and the global economy.

Automation is the key to boosting efficiency and productivity while reducing waste and conserving resources. By adopting advanced technologies across different industries, we can address these critical issues and work towards a more sustainable future.

  1. Automation in Recycling

By revolutionising how materials are sorted, processed, and repurposed, automation has breathed new life into the recycling industry, turning what was once a labour-intensive process into a streamlined, highly efficient operation. Automated sorting systems, equipped with advanced sensors and artificial intelligence, can quickly and accurately identify and separate different types of recyclables. This reduces contamination, increases recycling rates, and minimises the amount of waste sent to landfills.

Advanced sorting techniques and technologies include:

Computer Vision and Machine Learning

Systems use high-resolution cameras and computer vision algorithms to analyse and recognise different materials. For instance, they can distinguish between different types of plastics based on colour, shape, and even brand logos. The brand new Material Recovery Facility (MRF) from Recology in Santa Rosa, California, employs such a system. It uses real-time data from infrared sensors to distinguish between various types of recyclables within seven optical sorters to control air nozzles that sort materials.

These kinds of systems are trained on large datasets of recyclable materials, allowing them to improve their accuracy over time. Machine learning models can identify subtle differences between materials that human sorters may not notice, leading to more precise sorting.

End-of-Arm Tooling (EOAT)

Equipped with specialised EOAT, robotic arms can pick and place items with high precision. These tools include suction grippers for lightweight plastics and mechanical grippers for heavier or more rigid materials like metals and glass.

AMP Robotics, a company specialising in robotic arm sortation, offers a number of EOAT solutions to suit different recycling needs and facilities. Their AMP Delta robotics system can identify and pick up recyclables from a conveyor belt at a rate of 80 items per minute, significantly reducing contamination and improving recycling rates.

EOT Recycling Machine

Reverse Vending Machines (RVMs)

Reverse vending machines (RVMs) are automated devices designed to accept empty beverage containers and return money to the user. These machines play a critical role in recycling efforts by incentivising consumers to return bottles and cans.

An RVM scans each container to identify its material, brand, and size. This is typically done using advanced sensors and image recognition technology. After identification, the machine sorts the containers into different bins for plastics, glass, and metals. The sorted materials are stored inside the machine until they are collected for recycling.

COREMATIC designed and built Australia’s first RVM, which also shreds bottles to maximise storage and transport capacities. The C.BOX 3 can handle medium to high volumes of recyclable containers. Its design is compact, roughly the size of a single parking space, so it can be conveniently placed throughout communities without taking up too much room.

Ecoboxtec Cbox

 

  1. Automation in the Energy Sector

The energy sector is lighting up with automation, thanks to emerging technologies like smart grids, AI-enhanced demand forecasting, and new types of metering. This wave of automation is revitalising aging power grids and complex distribution systems, transforming our energy infrastructure into something smarter and more responsive.

Smart Grids

Smart grids are advanced electricity networks that utilise Internet of Things (IoT) sensors to monitor parameters such as voltage, current, and temperature across the grid. When combined with edge computing, which processes data close to its source to minimise latency, this sensor data enables responsive, real-time adjustments and improved fault detection capabilities.

In Denmark, the country’s smart grid effectively manages the integration and distribution of wind power, allowing the country to generate over 50% of its electricity from renewable sources. This demonstrates the incredible potential of automation in energy management.

Wind Turbine

AI for Demand Forecasting

AI is transforming how the energy sector forecasts demand, using historical data, weather forecasting, and real-time inputs from IoT devices to predict energy needs with high precision. This advanced forecasting allows energy providers to anticipate changes in energy demand and generation capacity more effectively.

For example, in California, AI-driven forecasting helps manage energy loads during peak times, enhancing the state’s ability to integrate solar power and cut down on non-renewable energy use.

  1. Automation in Mining

Mining, often seen as one of the most hazardous industries, is becoming safer and more efficient thanks to automation. Traditional mining practices contribute significantly to environmental degradation, including habitat destruction, soil erosion, and water pollution. The industry’s heavy reliance on fossil fuels further exacerbates carbon emissions, contributing to climate change. Automation offers a pathway to mitigate these issues.

Autonomous Drilling Fleets

Autonomous drilling rigs and haul trucks are now a common sight in mines around the world. For instance, Rio Tinto’s “Mine of the Future” program in Australia employs autonomous trucks and drills that can operate around the clock without human intervention, significantly boosting productivity and reducing operational costs.

Mining Truck

Drones

In addition, automated monitoring systems can track environmental impact, ensuring that mining activities are conducted responsibly. For example, using remote-controlled drones to monitor mine sites helps to manage the ecological footprint and maintain compliance with environmental regulations.

  1. Automation in Manufacturing

Manufacturing has long benefited from automation, with robotics and automated systems driving efficiency and precision, but recent advancements are taking it to new heights. In the context of sustainability, automation helps reduce material waste, optimise production processes, and lower energy consumption.

Industrial Robots

Industrial robots perform tasks with high precision, minimising errors and reducing the amount of scrap material generated. This efficient use of materials cuts costs and lessens the environmental impact associated with waste disposal and raw material extraction.

Consider Tesla’s Gigafactories, where automation is at the heart of production. Over 600 robots are in service on Tesla’s latest production line, including the largest industrial robot in the world, aptly named Godzilla. Robots handle everything from welding car bodies to assembling intricate battery packs, ensuring precision and efficiency at every step.

3D Printing

Furthermore, technologies like 3D printing are revolutionising the production process. Companies like General Electric use 3D printers to produce over 300 jet engine parts for the GE9X engine, drastically reducing waste and production time. This not only cuts costs but also minimises the environmental impact of manufacturing. GE is investing $400 million to buy more 3D printers and other equipment needed to scale its production capacity.

jet parts

The Key to a Greener Future

Automation is the cornerstone of a sustainable future. By boosting efficiency, cutting down waste, and optimising resource use across industries, automated technologies significantly advance environmental sustainability. As we continue to innovate and integrate automation into more aspects of our lives, we move closer to a future where economic growth and environmental stewardship go hand in hand.