Finland: Innovating in the country of 1,000 lakes


Vista aérea de Helsinki

Ferrovial, as part of its open innovation strategy, intends to be present in the main innovative ecosystems worldwide. One of them is Finland, which aspires to become the world leader in the circular economy. For that reason, it has fed the growth of startups developing green solutions to end single-use consumption chains. Ferrovial has launched a research project to automate treatment plants and put urban waste back into the value chain with one of them, Zenrobotics.

Finland is one of the most highly-valued places in the world. And this is not only because of its education system, but also its human capital, high social satisfaction indices and its economy, one of the most competitive around the globe. This Nordic country has been synonymous to innovation for years. In 2018, the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) acknowledged it as the most innovative country in the world. Yet, just like everything else involving Finland, the award was hardly granted by chance. Helsinki has been rewarding and providing incentives for decades for initiatives to create more sustainable and efficient cities as well as arenas for founders of newly-established companies and investors to meet such as its Slush and Junction Hackathon technology events. To this end, the organization responsible for accelerating digital change, Global Startup Ecosystem, ranks Helsinki as the best place in the world to facilitate these local connections although the Nordic country also brings in foreign investment.

With the program Finnish Startup Permit, Finland is also promoting foreign investment within its borders by making it easier for non-EU entrepreneurs to launch their own startup in the country.

Robots learning to classify waste

Zenrobotics is one of those companies. Founded in 2007, this Finnish company was the first in the world to apply robotics and artificial intelligence mechanisms to waste processing. Its CEO, Wolfgang Schiller, who holds a degree in Electrical Engineering, IT and Telecommunications says: “Robots support our strategy in seeking to improve the performance of waste treatment and materials recovery plants. In combination with AI, robots allow unique recognition and sorting capabilities. This technology allows our customers to recover more materials with a higher quality while minimizing the risk of accidents involving people.”

Up until a few months ago, Zenrobotics had focused the scope of action with its technology on construction and demolition waste. However, it made a qualitative jump in its strategy in January by starting off with a project alongside Ferrovial Services to check the feasibility of these robotic classification systems at urban waste treatment plants.

The robot, which was installed at the Ecoparc 4 plant in Hostalets de Pierola, Barcelona, is equipped with sensors that continuously monitor the flow of waste while an artificial intelligence module analyses and assimilates the information captured by these sensors in real time. Thus, the articulated robotic arms collect fractions of waste of varying shapes, sizes and materials at a speed of up to 10,000 pix.

“Together with Ferrovial’s technical team we have recognized that robotic sorting technology can be deployed to several places in the MSW process: to the quality control, oversize lines, reject reduction,” explained Schiller. “Robots allow further process advancements and in consequence lead to higher level of automation, flexibility and reduced processing costs,” he added.

The project that Ferrovial is developing along wth Zenrobotics is supported by Climate-KIC, the EU’s main initiative on climate change.

Although the project is still in the research phase, the good results obtained up to now predict a transformation in how treatment plants are designed to continue moving forward in the fight against climate change. The robotic technology installed at the plant, which was funded by the European Union through  EIT Climate-KIC, has been proven to not only increase efficiency and reduce costs but also increase the quality of the recycled waste which provides incentive for the development of the circular economy.

The CEO of Zenrobotics explained that the positive results achieved to date go hand-in-hand with the good understanding and ideal inter-departmental coordination with Ferrovial, highlighting its organizational culture and coordination capabilities. “The large size of the company results in cooperation with many industry experts. It is not easy to coordinate a pilot project across various departments, but Ferrovial has done a great job in that,” underlined Schiller, who admits being impressed by the level of commitment and support shown by the company throughout the project execution. “Ferrovial as a very innovative and visionary partner, with very solid experience in waste treatment in Spain and around the globe. The lessons learned in our joined pilot project will help us ensure the quality of the upcoming projects. This kind of mature approach to process innovation, and willingness to learn is what brings long-term success,” stated the CEO of Zenrobotics with regard to its relationship with Ferrovial.


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