The RVM’s software can then understand whether it’s interpreting a barcode or QR code, the brand of the container, and build up a mathematical structure for what kind of container was just inserted – and then search in a database for whether it is a container that can be accepted. Different deposit return systems have different requirements, and the software has multiple extensions and plug-ins for ensuring the RVM technology can be used in different markets, and exchange data with different point-of-sale systems.
All the way on its journey through the reverse vending machine, the drink container is subject to strict object tracking, to ensure accuracy of the deposit refund. The sensor technology knows the shape and size of the bottle, its speed, and when it will arrive at the next location – and can detect if something has changed during that sequence. If a container is slightly dented, it will have a different behavior from the normal sequence, and can have a different arrival time, and as such the software factors in an expected window of time around that. The calculations for how the container will move through the reverse vending machine start as soon as the container is released from the recycler’s hand. Re-calculations are made if the recycler touches the container again or if the sensors detect fraud attempts.
Mickaël Fontaine explains, “TOMRA’s engineers have spent decades refining and advancing the hardware and software that drive this process, and what they have achieved is incredible.”
The sensor technology inside TOMRA’s reverse vending machines has advanced significantly. Laser recognition has been introduced, video cameras have been brought in – first for pattern recognition and later for continuous video surveillance, helping to boost accuracy and spot irregularities.
“An especially pivotal moment for us was the introduction of TOMRA Flow Technology in 2013, and its 360-degree instant recognition. This was a world first, eliminating the need for the reverse vending machine to stop and rotate the container in order to scan the barcode, which saves valuable time and ensures a continuous flow of containers,” adds Mickaël Fontaine.
“Another particularly significant innovation was TOMRA True Vision™, our crate recognition technology, which is the most advanced technology of its kind. It uses unique and patented optics and light-source systems, providing high-quality images and data to facilitate rapid recognition of entire crates of returned bottles, processing up to 21 crates per minute.” TOMRA True Vision uses stereo imaging to measure the length, width, height and corner properties of crates, and the dimensions of the bottles the crates contain.
More recently, in 2019, TOMRA’s innovators rose to the challenge of creating a cutting-edge new machine called TOMRA R1, a multi-feed reverse vending machine that accepts more than 100 containers at once. Here, consumers pour in entire bags of containers rather than inserting the containers one by one, for a faster and more convenient recycling experience, that also avoids sticky hands.
Collaboration between hardware and software
It’s not just the hardware inside reverse vending machines that feature advanced technology.
On embedded software, TOMRA reverse vending systems have a distributed controlling system with nodes talking to each other over a standardized bus technology – a high-speed technology to send messages from one hardware part to another. This distributed node system is part of an item tracking system to enable precise image recognition and sorting.
The software powers, for example, the content of the reverse vending machine screen facing the consumer, for different phases in the recycling sequence: the idle screen between consumer recycling sessions, welcome screen when the session begins, and a thank-you screen. The software also does all the calculations of the container deposit refund at the end of a consumer’s recycling session, explains Mickaël Fontaine.
“Our API (application programming interface) integrations are a great example of this. They enable retailers to integrate their RVMs with their existing digital management system, which helps them to optimize RVM operations and maximize returns. We have also developed a range of digital tools that enable retailers and consumers alike to get the most out of their recycling experience.”
Digital tools inside TOMRA’s reverse vending machines include:
- Notify+Assist: Providing a real-time overview of daily activity and trends, making it easier for retailers to plan staff’s time and RVM maintenance.
- Voucher Control: Ensuring deposit refunds are only redeemed once and allowing customers to redeem refunds across the retail chain.
- Reports: Identifying usage insights, helping to facilitate better management, plan smart staffing and reduce queuing time.
Two additional tools provide added value for the end user as well as the retailer:
- myTOMRA: Making recycling fun and more convenient through a user-friendly app that helps customers find RVM locations, see the machines' status, track their recycling achievements, and collect their deposit refunds digitally.
- In-store marketing: Providing additional opportunities for retailers to connect with consumers during the recycling experience:
- Displaying marketing material or videos on the RVM screen.
- Offering donation programs that allow customers to give their deposit to charity.
- Printing promotional vouchers on RVM deposit receipts, so shoppers get savings while retailers encourage return visits.
A culture of innovation inside reverse vending machines
TOMRA’s first RVM was installed in 1972 and since then the company has strived to innovate and future-proof their solutions by continually monitoring market trends and assessing retailer and customer needs.
“TOMRA invests 8% of its yearly revenue in research and development (R&D), backed by a team of talented engineers who are driven by their genuine passion for recycling technology. That’s the reason we are a preferred partner to retailers and why we now have approximately 82,000 reverse vending installations around the world,” concludes Mickaël Fontaine.