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Blog July 2022

Evolution of MRF software and technology – discussion from Waste Expo 22

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Evan Schwartz

Chief Enterprise Architect, AMCS Global

After the Show

On May 10th, 2022, an expert group of industry speakers met at Waste Expo 2022 to review MRFs' future software and technology roadmap. Colin Stiles, Sr. Vice President of Sales for Diversys, moderated, having stepped in for Mark JamenskyAmanda Marrs, Senior Director of Product, AMP Robotics, and Thomas Brooks, Chief Technology Officer, Bulk Handling Systems, appeared alongside myself on the panel.

It is always challenging to dive deep during any significant event like Waste Expo, given obvious time restraints, but I felt some key topics that evolved from this discussion were worth more examination. One important topical subject that we discussed was the following question: 

"In the last two years, we have seen unparalleled workforce upheaval resulting in increased employee turnover, worker shortages, and work-from-home moves. How do you see technology adoption helping mitigate some of these factors in our industry?"

Changes in the Waste & Recycling Industry

The waste and recycling industry has moved rapidly in recent times; some might say too rapidly to meet the demand of the remote worker. Some companies were better positioned to achieve this than others. Those that had already invested in cloud technology, decoupled themselves from the bricks-and-mortar establishment some time ago, making the transition easy. Visionaries who saw the benefits of what cloud services offered were able to monopolize the flexibility, agility, and resiliency of these applications, including that it was available anywhere and at anytime. Racing to enable remote workers during the pandemic, primarily focused on two functional areas: Customer Service and Back-Office Administration. However, some innovative organizations sought alternative solutions and with a suitable investment in robotics and AI, businesses found themselves pushing the boundaries of what was possible.  Single stream sort lines could be organized, as well as a human sorter using robotics and vision AI.  AI models allowed businesses to automate some decision workflows that previously required a human, such as purchase approvals.  Introducing robots reduced the amount of time and effort required to achieve a remote workforce.  For those businesses not positioned correctly for this change, the technical hurdle of providing effective security, operations, and an over-reliance on manual, paper processes was too high.  Sadly, some paid the ultimate price by losing their business.

Shifting to remote working

Necessity being the mother of invention, saw that providing distributed security and access for remote workers became the primary technological requirement. Many people were using BYOD (Bring Your Own Device), and the challenges of managing non-native devices became a significant obstacle for many businesses. Everyone was using their at-home internet connection, making the network nearly impossible to protect. 

Technology providing the solution to shifting working patterns

The pressure of shifting working patterns pushed companies to seek out "common-use platforms" to minimize the application footprint on non-native devices.  The cost to manage local applications on employee-owned devices was often very difficult to configure or cost prohibitive. The browser became the most popular tool for delivering content, data, dashboards, and documents. SSO (Single Sign-On) capable applications had become an industry requirement, in order to build out an enterprise solution. It was simpler to manage beyond single device usage and very cost effective.  Overnight, for safety reasons, paper, and paper signatures had vanished. 

We've had digital signature technology for some time now, but it took a pandemic for companies to invest in processes to adopt them. Businesses needed a way for their employees to connect to the tools that drive their business, access data, dashboards, and get business done.  The world of technology developed myriad cloud-based solutions: collaboration tools, portals, ERPs, CRMs, and virtually every other product stack imaginable, all working over mobile phones, tablets, and portable laptop devices, such as, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Slack, Google Docs, Microsoft 365 and others had become pervasive. If you step back and look at what we accomplished, technically, in such a short time, it is awe-inspiring. The world has changed almost entirely in every aspect of our lives. As a technologist, it made me proud of humanity to see what working together can achieve.

Choosing the right technology solutions for your business

Change, however, is disruptive. The transition to operating remotely saw a reduction in the available workforce and changed its makeup. Sometimes, businesses had to use less experienced although technically savvy workers. To compensate for the lack of industry expertise, they turned to AI (Artificial Intelligence) and Automation. For AI and Automation tools to work effectively, they require increased data and analytics. Thus, businesses invested in AI to make automated decisions using workflow tools. Robotics, quietly evolving in the background, waiting for the right moment, pushed the envelope on what many people thought was possible. Vision AI for example, had come of age, and robots were not intelligent enough to look through a waste stream and pluck out items of value.  

New technology at work in Waste & Recycling Industry

Next, technology evolved beyond the back office, beyond the sorting lines, and into the trucks themselves.  IoT (Internet of Things) sensors fed the system with an incredible amount of data, but more importantly, valid, actionable data.  Cameras detected contamination, identifying details and insights about a route we've never had before.  

Technology leaped from the truck onto the Scale System.  With newfound confidence in technology, businesses asked questions like, "Why does a driver need to interact with a terminal at the scale?  Why do I need a Scaler?" These simple questions began to push technology further, allowing drivers to "weigh in" over their mobile phones.  The concept of "Low-Touch" and "No-Touch" became a matter of safety.  Any common shared devices by people were looked at with scrutiny: DAT (Driver Assisted Terminals), Access panels, and Kiosk like workstations to name a few. These shared devices were re-imagined and questions asked, what if no one had to touch this?  How can we reduce human interaction?  The Dispatch manager doesn't need to meet with the drivers if a mobile device can tell the drivers where to go and what to do. The driver doesn't need to meet with the route manager if she can manage the end-of-day driver debrief from the mobile device. Exceptions, additional charges, repair reports, contamination, and driver actions are catalogued, codified, and delivered for review.  More people are asking, "Why?" as data visibility increases. Each answer leads to more automation, streamlined processes, and efficiencies.  

The development and rise of Cloud technology

Each of these technologies deserves an article itself, and there are many new technologies that I don’t have time to discuss now. The technologies described here have helped to mitigate the challenges of the remote-worker. The key tenet to these innovations is that they are all cloud-based solutions. Without exception, companies that weathered the pandemic storm the best, had already adopted cloud-based technology. They were either already transitioned off-prem or the pandemic was an accelerator to the move to cloud services.  

Cloud technology is a key part of business strategy and innovation

The takeaway is that some technologies offer great business agility, such as the ability to collaborate remotely, manage workflows and decision-making across teams while others target business needs, like enabling customers to pay any time from their phone while sitting on their couch. A company’s technology strategy needs to respond to changing environmental and market conditions. The strategic value of having an agile business capable of exploiting opportunities in the market, including leveraging the potential of technology, is far beyond risk avoidance and better operational efficiencies. Seeking out enabling technologies that offer business extensibility, flexibility and agility will be the foundational requirements for the next wave of innovations. So, during your next technical steering committee meeting, evaluating foundational technologies within your overall strategy and not just those targeting a specific business need, is critical and in all likelihood, new technology employed, will be cloud based solutions. These cloud applications and platforms will ultimately offer the greatest business value and innovation, as we navigate through whatever comes, as the next wave of industry disruption.  

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