Waste-sorting robotic systems
Before he launched AMP Robotics, Horowitz was working with world-changing technology -- and looking to apply it to a big problem.
"I went to graduate school at Caltech and was learning some of the recent techniques and algorithms in robotics and artificial intelligence," he says. "I saw that there were some pretty powerful results published around 2012 and 2013 in the subject that's now called deep learning. It was just really apparent that this was going to be very powerful technology."
At the time, he notes, "They were using it to identify cats in YouTube videos, but the state of the art at that time was so poor that the ability to identify a cat in a video was considered an extremely hard problem."
That led him to explore applications for deep learning in the real world. Horowitz had something of an epiphany at the recycling facility at Puente Hills Landfill in Los Angeles County, California. "The landfill is so big, it's basically a mountain," says Horowitz.
Sorting single-stream recyclables emerged as a potential match for the AI-driven robotic systems Horowitz had in mind. "I went into the recycling facility and I didn't know anything about recycling, so I was asking some questions of the person giving the tour," says Horowitz. "He was telling me that it was a very unpleasant job and the rates of turnover were really high. I said, 'What about robots?'"
He continues, "There was a real clear need for what we'd built -- which is a sensor that can identify packaging and paper and cardboard and these sorts of things."
Horowitz, who grew up in Colorado, returned to launch the company in Louisville and piloted the first system at an Alpine Waste & Recycling facility (now owned by GFL) in Denver with financial backing from the Carton Council.
"We installed it early in 2016," says Horowitz. "We deployed a robot. We broke it, so we deployed another robot. We thought we'd be a little more robust, but we broke that one. Then we deployed a third robot, and it worked pretty well."
AMP Robotics assembles its systems in-house with off-the-shelf robotics from Omron that are often used in packaging. "For us, the robot is one of the core components of the system," says Horowitz. "What we have built is a vision system that can do the identification of the material. We've also done some other things, like build the robot grippers that are customized for recycling."
He adds, "Really, these robots have been around to solve this problem for 15 years. What was missing was this identification capability to tell the robot what to pick and where."
The system can identify more than 100 different categories of materials with 99-plus percent precision in the primary categories.
Picking success "is in the 90 to 95 percent range for most materials," says Horowitz. "The robot does 80 picks a minute, if not higher, in most applications. A person will usually average around 40, and many people average less. It's a pretty tiring job, so the robot's doing the work of two people usually."
As of early 2022, AMP Robotics had deployed more than 200 systems primarily to single-stream recycling facilities in the U.S. The robots are also a good fit for operations that handle compost, electronics scrap, and construction waste.
"We designed our system around people being able to get one or two robots, getting comfortable with it, and then getting more and more robots," says Horowitz. "Now it's a question of how quick we can make that move. People want to see their first robot running for six months versus 12 months before getting five or 10 and entrusting a large fraction of their business to the robots."
Leveraging a global supply chain, AMP Robotics fabricates enclosures and grippers in-house, and assembles the finished systems. "Most of it is equipment that we spec out and then different groups -- metal fabrication shops, electrical panel shops -- but it's assembled here in Colorado," says Horowitz.
About 40 of the company's 250 employees have a hand in production. As the company sees its sales roughly doubling on an annual basis, Horowitz anticipates hiring another 50 to 100 employees in 2022 to bring the total head count above 300.
But the most compelling growth metric might be the amount of recyclable waste that the company's systems are diverting from landfills. "That's more than doubled each year," says Horowitz.
AMP Robotics is based in two buildings that total 30,000 square feet, but it is consolidating into a single 80,000-square-foot facility in Louisville in mid-2022. "Hopefully, it will be our home for a very long time," says Horowitz.
Challenges: "I think the central thing is continuing to improve the technology so that the industry adopts more and more rapidly," says Horowitz. "Regular salesmanship in an industry that's getting comfortable with new technology is our natural rate limiter to growth."
Supply chain "is a challenge, but with enough hard work, we've been able to get ahead of it," he adds. "We've had to buy more graphics cards than we usually would. Those are in especially high demand, especially as bitcoin prices go up. It's quite frustrating."
Opportunities: Horowitz estimates that there is "a market for tens of thousands of robots" in countries all over the world. "It's a big number, but we only need a couple more doublings and we'll get close," he says. "We've really been focused on the U.S., but the European opportunity is just as large. From Japan to Australia to places in Southeast Asia, there are great opportunities for these systems."
He adds, "The pain point around manual sorting is so high that people are hankering for the technology."
Policy changes at both the government and corporate level are "also going to drive a lot of growth in the industry," says Horowitz. "Even outside of the legislative realm, different packaging companies have made very public commitments about their use of recycled content, and what's happening right now is the demand for recycled materials -- especially plastics -- actually exceeds what the recycling industry is producing today."
"In the United States, the recycling rate is 34 percent. With this kind of support, it's really easy to see a path to doubling that, or at least getting above 50 percent and starting to look much more positive. A lot of people in the recycling industry, ourselves included, are pretty bullish on the industry's expansion."
Needs: "We're hiring across the board," says Horowitz. "It's everything: marketing, engineering, maintenance, assembly of these robots."
"The other thing is already happening, which is just continued growth in the recycling industry," he adds. "We're part of the leading edge, so that's working out really well for us."