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Combining scrap trading with sensor-based sorting

It is universally agreed that the future lies in scrap with a guaranteed high quality. Simultaneously, the public sector is showing real interest in circular innovation. This seems the right moment to invest in advanced scrap processing and take the secondary materials market a step closer to the level of primary materials.

This article was published in Recycling Technology / Reading time: 4.5 min

Metal demand is expected to grow globally in the years to 2050. By far the most effective option for reducing metals’ environmental impact and strategic dependencies is to increase the share of secondary production. However, bulk scrap flows are currently not available in Europe at sufficient qualities and quantities to substitute primary production to a meaningful degree.

Experts and potential users recognise the vast potential of scrap, but only if qualities and quantities of secondary materials could become consistent, high level, guaranteed and subject to specification. So for the secondary scrap market to grow substantially as a source of high-grade materials, it should match more closely the conditions presently known from primary metals.

Changing import policies

Unlocking the potential of scrap demands a breakthrough in the quality and cost of scrap processing. This will require a combination of data-driven trading concepts, high-tech components and artificial intelligence. If this is the European perspective, the Asian view is that scrap is no longer automatically acceptable for import and needs more definition, value and guarantees.

Scrap processing and trading is looking at a transition period of high-tech smart innovations that will replace today’s linear business model with a circular business model. At present, most scrap is first collected for large-scale transportation to low-wage countries, where it is then processed to make low- and medium-grade products with substantial negative impacts on human health and the environment. In return, Western countries import virgin metals or mined ores to make high-end materials.

Huge logistics shift 

Professor Peter Rem

Going circular means that a substantial proportion of our waste metals are routed into the local metallurgical industry where they are used for new high-end applications at a considerably lower (fossil) energy consumption. Where labour costs are high, this will be a largely data-driven business, implying a considerable impact on how supply chains currently operate.

The metal recycling industry has been slow to implement new digital and data-driven technologies. For the future, however, digital innovation is expected to create an important part of added value, and this will create a driver for the sector to capture and exploit more data from scrap flows. McKinsey Research suggests metal producers who harness the full potential of a digital transformation can increase their EBITDA by six to eight percentage points.

Big data to rule

An innovation based on data-driven trading, fully-automated bulk characterisation of scrap and intelligent sorting implies a cross-over approach supported by a joint effort of rather different disciplines.

In the new circular model, scrap is sorted with the help of big data, artificial intelligence and robotic pickers into lots of narrowly-specified target compositions. The sorting facility’s inputs and outputs are assessed on quality by an array of high-tech sensors to create a guaranteed quality for local smelters.

Trading should take into account the data from both sorting and quality assessment to control the costs of goods sold. In all steps, it is essential to realise cost levels that make high-grade local scrap products competitive with virgin imports.

What is the Circular Economy?

Many European countries are targetting a circular society, realising both the societal and economic benefits of their sustainable industry. This transition towards a circular economy, according to the European Commission, is ‘the opportunity to transform our economy and to generate new and sustainable competitive advantages for Europe’.

At the practical level, it creates a formidable challenge for governments and the recycling industry. In order to decouple economic growth from material input, societies now encourage their leading industries with incentives to invest in circular initiatives.

From a societal perspective, the goals are to avoid loss of strategic resources, cut logistical movements around the world and overcome the limitations of current manual techniques in delivering more pure and well-documented scrap. As a result of this circular push, several initiatives have led to scrap sorting plants based on sensors, robotics and artificial intelligence.

Circular Scrap Facility

One such initiative involves the creation of a Circular Scrap Facility, an industrial facility in which data on individual scrap particles are collected, processed and shared between operations, with the aim of demand-driven production of lots. The project is a collaboration involving many industries, led by Reukema Recycling of Harderwijk in the Netherlands (picture), and a group of universities delivering expert knowledge and research in supporting disciplines.

The cutting edge of circular scrap innovation lies in combining scrap trading with sensor-based sorting and quality assessment in an integrated facility for local high-grade circular metals. For this, the Dutch project is investigating recent developments in artificial intelligence, high-tech sensor components and sorting architectures, with a focus on how visible and electromagnetic properties of scrap particles can be linked to its main alloy composition and contaminants, and on success rates of various robotic pick-up strategies.

A novel concept

Special sensors and data analysis models are to complement the visual input and to obtain a volumetrically representative quality assessment of scrap lots. Present quality assessment systems for scrap analyse the surface of particles, and so the measured data provide trends rather than commercially relevant data for smelters.

For this novel concept, sensors are selected to fit the constraint that their output can be turned into surface-independent data by suitable algorithms. However, the project’s scope extends beyond technology to inventory present and future scrap flows, seeking to predict the innovation’s social, environmental, economic and strategic impacts, as well as changes in logistics operations, routes and transport modalities.

Given the many ways scrap is connected to industry and society, new initiatives will undoubtedly change more than just the circularity of scrap.

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