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Matanya Horowitz: Shaping the future of smart sorting

Smart sorting solutions are slowly but surely taking over recycling plants and they are here to stay, according to AMP Robotics ceo Matanya Horowitz. The company is helping recyclers from Michigan and Virginia in the US to Toyama in Japan reach their full potential. The tech-savvy entrepreneur talks about the latest developments in sorting and especially artificial intelligence. 

How do you view the global sorting technology market at the moment?

‘The market is at an interesting stage. More than ever, recycling markets are strong as long as you’re able to separate material with high purity and specificity. Demand for food-grade plastics, in particular, is growing in a way few would have expected even a year ago. This creates an immense opportunity for the industry to improve its infrastructure to take advantage. Both those equipment makers and operators who are able to serve this market demand will be well placed to drive this industry for years to come.’

What are the biggest challenges in today’s sorting sector?

‘The economics and efficiency of identifying and sorting create a major challenge for material recovery. In recent years, the waste industry has also faced stricter international quality standards for contamination-free imports of recycled materials, leaving the industry in search of cost-effective alternatives to meet these requirements. Covid-19 then forced many businesses to suspend recycling operations due to concerns for worker safety. Simultaneously, the pandemic increased demand for high-quality recycled feedstock to overcome supply chain interruptions and shifts in raw material availability.’

How did the coronavirus impact your day-to-day operations?

‘In retrospect, 2020 ended up being a breakout year for AMP in spite of the pandemic, and we kicked off 2021 with US$55 million (EUR 46 million) in new funding to accelerate innovation and meet the strong demand for our AI and robotics technology.’

Mirroring the trend seen in other industries, the effects of the pandemic accelerated demand for and adoption of our technology for waste and recycling. As I noted, Covid-19 forced many recycling businesses to suspend operations due to concerns for worker safety as facilities weren’t designed with social distancing in mind; human sorters often work shoulder to shoulder in tight quarters. Simultaneously, the pandemic increased demand for high-quality recycled feedstock to overcome supply chain interruptions and shifts in raw material availability, which made operational continuity all the more critical.

I was really proud of the way our team adapted to the changes brought on by the pandemic. The transition to a virtual work environment happened during a year of rapid growth for our company: we increased headcount significantly in 2020. Adding new roles and building teams can be a lot to adjust to even in a “normal” year but our team maintained momentum. And those in teams out in the field deftly navigated new protocols around PPE, social distancing and regular cleaning to continue the pace of installations.’

What material is AMP Robotics focusing on most of all?

‘Our technology works to recover anything of value in the waste stream – paper, metals, plastics and more. We recently piloted an automated facility design for advanced secondary sortation, which serves as an infrastructure model that can economically process and aggregate small volumes of mixed plastics, paper and metals sourced from residue supplied by primary materials recovery facility (MRFs).

I believe the ability to recover recyclables from residual waste streams represents a major opportunity to increase national recycling rates. Today, the difficult-to-recycle material left over from MRFs is typically sent to landfill. This means that millions of tonnes of recyclables and material feedstock worth billions of dollars are lost to landfill despite the demand for recycled content from consumer packaged goods companies and manufacturers.’

How would you say your sorting solutions differ from others out there?

‘Our proprietary artificial intelligence platform is our core technology and key differentiator. Our robots work very well; they can sort material with industry-leading accuracy and precision and are continuously improving results. This is possible because our AI neural network is constantly trained on new materials and packaging types and, with each installation, the collective knowledge grows and is distributed across our entire fleet.’

Innovation moves so fast. How hard is it to keep refining your technology?

‘As well as our systems work today, the expansion of AI applications for material identification and recovery is a major focus for us. AI opens up many opportunities that fundamentally reshape the margin profile of a MRF and make recycling a more important part of the waste ecosystem.

It’s been exciting to see the possibilities innovation opens up in an industry that hasn’t been on the cutting edge of technological advancements. The challenges of recycling continue to be appealing because solving them means addressing a critical need that combines our team’s passion for technology and continuous improvement with our desire to safeguard the environment.’

How would you describe your company’s DNA and mission?

‘Our mission at AMP is to apply AI and robotics to enable a world without waste. We believe technology holds the promise of decoupling the world’s potential from environmental harm. Our values include optimism, urgency, determination, resourcefulness, and sincerity. I am confident that by continuing to improve our technology and expand our reach, recycling can become the dominant form of waste management.’

What inspires you as a chief executive?

‘My belief that there is no better time to find ways to leverage technology in the pursuit of environmental good influences as ceo I reflect the overall ethos of our team. The key is not merely solving the direct problem but aligning incentives, removing barriers, and reducing costs to do the right thing. The problem with so much has been one of scale. Carbon capture, recycling, transport electrification, solar energy and sustainable farming have all been possible but economic barriers have been too high. Technology is rapidly reducing the costs associated with these and many other environmentally beneficial paths forward.’

Who in the field of technology do you look up to personally?

‘I continue to admire technologists like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos who have seen and shown how new technical capabilities can transform an industry and have carved out a competitive advantage with that technology. There is a great deal of potential in recycling that remains untapped and, with artificial intelligence, robotics and more, the industry can be a far more important part of the waste industry than it has been historically.’

What milestone are you most proud of so far?

‘It’s hard to pick just one, but late last year, we closed our largest deal to date with Waste Connections, the third-largest waste management company in the United States, to deploy 25 of our AI-guided robotics systems on container, fibre and residue lines in numerous MRFs nationwide. We did it by working hard to prove the real-life performance and reliability of robotic sorting. I’m glad to say we’ve help the industry realise that AI and robotics have progressed beyond experimental technologies. Major players are now adopting them to take their operations to the next level.’

Have we yet glimpsed the true potential of AI solutions?

‘The importance of AI to the future of the industry can’t be overstated and we have a number of initiatives in the works to capitalise on its potential and our leadership in its applications to waste and recycling. We’re developing new vision system offerings, innovating data capture for waste characterization to support operators and expanding data access to packaging producers to help them achieve recycled content goals. Our application of AI for material identification and advanced automation has matured to the point where it’s become feasible to develop low-volume secondary sortation facilities that are economical to deploy and sustain nationally, and we’re very optimistic about its potential.’

Do you think the recycling industry is ready to embrace AI technology?

‘Absolutely. We’re seeing the infrastructure and credibility we’ve been building for more than five years really come together and make a big industry impact. Our robots work well and solve meaningful problems. And we’re excited about other expanded applications of AI. The accuracy we’re starting to see is incredible and brings us closer to bale certification and other initiatives we’ve long pursued. The exciting project and partnership with Waste Connections shows what’s possible but we believe that this is just the beginning of a broader trend.’

What area of the world do you think has witnessed the most progress in AI systems?

‘Outside of recycling, the easy answers would be autonomous vehicles and recommendation systems. Autonomous vehicles still have a little ways to go but – then again – what is possible with my Tesla today is far beyond what many believed several years ago.’

It is tricky to stay ‘on the radar’ in a world without trade shows and conferences. How do you cope?

‘We’ve all had to pivot but we’ve been able to maintain success with virtual conferences, trade shows, webinars and other meetings. We’ve invested in infrastructure to provide live video feeds from some of our client sites and have continued to focus on producing top-notch video content to showcase our solutions. We’ve also benefited from a strong reputation in the industry and references from existing customers.’

Do you feel the pandemic paused innovation and demand within the sorting tech sector?

‘No. In fact, we’ve observed the opposite. We saw an uptick in new orders and repeat orders from existing customers. Customers were also more willing to adopt the technology more aggressively, so we had instances where they were buying more systems versus starting with just one or two. We also introduced a lease programme to make AI and robotics even more accessible to recycling businesses facing operational and economic challenges created by the pandemic. Financial benefits like fixed monthly payments with nothing due upfront were intended to help small businesses and municipalities maintain the public service of recycling during challenging economic times and budget shortfalls.

We marked milestones in our business despite the pandemic, including one billion pieces of material processed over a 12-month period, Series B funding that came just over a year after our Series A, our largest purchase order to date and the launch of our secondary sortation facility design.’

What do you hope 2021 will bring?

‘No doubt, 2020 presented countless unanticipated challenges, particularly for the waste and recycling industry. But the industry showed its resilience and while the ripple effects of the pandemic continue into 2021 we think the future is bright. We’re focused on innovation, scale, and impact. Looking at waste technology for the year ahead, we see trends such as more investment, larger deployments and new applications for AI.’

At the end of the day, what inspires and motivates you to make a difference?

‘A quote that resonates with me is, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” We live at a time where the benefits of technology are vast and only accelerating. This creates a number of opportunities; I’ve continually tried to learn and master technological tools to accrue opportunities to hasten this trajectory. I’m thrilled to have even a small hand in that.’

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