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How do you count crushed cans crammed into a cube?
An applied research project by Okanagan College could crack open a solution to the tongue-twisting challenge and offer serious savings for the recycling industry for years to come.
Interior Recycling contacted Okanagan College last year, seeking local expertise to solve an expensive inventory problem. Currently, the Vernon recycling facility measures the quantity of aluminum cans that it processes based on weight; however, owner Jay Aarsen estimates this method comes with a significant margin of error.
"Auditing loads and can counts is a challenge, because we work on a ratio that factors so many cans per pound. But there's a big variation in that because of the liquids inside, and in winter, it would be heavy when the liquid froze. The only way to audit a load would be to count it by hand, which would be very time consuming," Aarsen explains.
Factor in the 12 to 14 million cans travelling through the depot's doors each year, and that ratio significantly impacts the company’s bottom line.
Luke Skulmoski, an OC trades instructor and licensed electrician, obtained a Canadian Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Engage Grant to research, design, develop and install a system for counting aluminum cans more accurately.
He researched whether other sorting or counting machines existed, and found examples in Switzerland and California that use a spinning motion to separate and count cans. The specifications for that technology, however, were far too large to fit in the Interior Recycling's building.
"We had to design something that functioned and fit within this building," says Skulmoski.
Working alongside welding instructor Sean Jarvis, Skulmoski designed a customized hopper that uses an agitator to help funnel cans down through 21 metal chutes. Adjacent to each chute is a photo sensor that signals a computer each time a can falls. When the computer’s count reaches a specific number of cans, the conveyor stops momentarily, allowing the hopper to release the counted cans into a condenser. From there, “biscuits” of compressed aluminum emerge, each having equal numbers of cans, regardless of weight.
"This could make our plant run more efficiently because we could put people into more skilled labour, in terms of maintaining the counting machine, versus just counting the cans. Being able to audit everything versus spot-check will be great," says Aarsen.
Students were also brought onto the applied research project. Curtis Alwood, a first-year Electrician Pre-Apprenticeship student in Kelowna, researched options for counting technologies and helped wire the components. Maximillian Dannert, who completed his Welder Foundation Certificate this spring, assisted with designing, welding, and fabricating the hopper and its frame.
"This gives students hands-on experience working with a client, facing real deadlines on a real project. Plus they get paid," says Skulmoski.
The prototype was affixed to the existing conveyor system, taking four days to custom fabricate and install. The applied research team also had to ensure the counting machine could quickly and easily convert back to the old weight-based system, in case something happens with the prototype, adding another layer of complexity to the project.
"Applied research projects like this bring the community and academia together, and that doesn't happen very often. From start to finish we were able to offer this partner a solution in just six months, whereas with other larger institutions it could take years," Skulmoski explains, adding that the end result could save the bottle depot tens of thousands of dollars per year.