After joining National Recovery Technologies (NRT), a subsidiary of Bulk Handling Systems (BHS), in January 2014, Thomas Brooks has led technology and product development for the company, including the redevelopment of NRT’s line of optical sorting technology.
Now, as director of technology and product development for BHS based in Eugene, Ore., Brooks is leading the industry by example.
“He brings people together from different BHS companies to work toward a common goal,” says Peter Raschio, marketing manager of BHS. “He is steadfast in his vision to create the totally intelligent MRF [materials recovery facility]—this is not a robot here or there but a system that uses a variety of advanced technology to create products by design 24/7.”
According to Raschio, the redevelopment of NRT’s line of optical sorting technology modernized NRT’s optical sorters, improving performance, maintainability and aesthetics.
“More importantly, they became standardized—sharing more common parts and taking on modular design elements that highly increased NRT’s production capacity, lead time and made for easier, faster installations,” he says.
Waste360 recently sat down with Brooks, a Waste360 2020 40 Under 40 award winner, to discuss his role at BHS and the future of technology in waste and recycling.
Waste360: What is your background in the waste and recycling industry?
Thomas Brooks: I guess I am the newbie in many ways. I have only been in this industry for roughly six years; however, I consider myself a quick learner. My tenure started when I joined NRT as the engineering manager in 2014.
I come from a background of engineering consultancy where I worked on projects focused on the aerospace and biomedical industries. Everything I learned in those industries is impactful to what I am doing today and allows me to approach challenges in different ways. I made the initial change to NRT because I was looking for something more “normal.”
What I have found is now I am in one of the most dynamic and challenging industries in the world, and it’s amazing! Even in the short time I have been in the industry, it has completely changed. It is ever-evolving and moving in every facet.
Waste360: Describe your role as director of technology and product development for BHS.
Thomas Brooks: My role at BHS is to guide and lead the technology and product development for the entire BHS family of companies. This includes all of the separation technologies as well as technologies and products we use to help grow our business.
While the development aspects are my core responsibility, I am always focused on the deployment of technology and how we productize tech to add value to the process. Inventing and developing cool tech is one thing, but developing tech that is impactful is something completely different and how we move the industry forward.
The other key aspect of my role is to think about our technology in a holistic way and create the technology vision for BHS. This includes looking ahead of the industry and markets in an effort to anticipate areas for further investment.
Waste360: How did you redevelop NRT’s line of optical sorting technology?
Thomas Brooks: NRT has a long history of producing high-quality optical sorters. They had a process in place for the design and production that worked. As any good engineer, I started with why? I questioned everything that was done, not so much the design features but the reasoning for the features.
This first led to a different design philosophy, and then to a new optical design. It now includes an adaptive and expansive product offering that offers sorting in a multitude of detection technologies including sensory and image recognition.
Waste360: How were you able to integrate the company’s technologies?
Thomas Brooks: Creating single product lines and offerings that continue to meet the growing demands of our industry is a difficult task. However, bringing them all together in a single integrated way is on a completely different level. The only way to accomplish this is to have central vision and the influence to drive execution and deployment.
Every technology we create and product we design has to consider the process before and after it—nothing really stands alone. The material stream is just too complicated to have a single one size fits all. The other aspect that drives the integration of our technology is the collection and connectivity of data.
Over the last two years, we have grown a significant capability to develop and deploy our own controls and data analytics system. We call this our Total Intelligence Platform. This system allows us to extract data throughout the plant as well as leverage the data coming from intelligent equipment (Max-AI and NRT Opticals) to create information that drives value for our customers.
One great example of our technology integration is our Max-AI and NRT Optical integration into a single product to allow for AI [artificial intelligence] and sensory-based detection to function together to make difficult separations.
Waste360: What efforts have you made to industrialize recycling?
Thomas Brooks: This starts with the right frame of mind and thinking about the objective of our business, which is taking raw materials and turning them into a final saleable product. In our industry, we do this by taking waste and adding value to the material and creating commodities such as processed material or energy. We are in a manufacturing industry; we just need to embrace this.
For years, we have been governed by “we have to take the material we are given.” While from a processing standpoint this is true, there are also financial ramifications to processing material that is below spec, just like there are for producing it. In all forms of manufacturing, the goals are simple—reduce variability and drive efficiency.
Using this as the guidance for our technology roadmap, I lead the introduction of several key technologies and capabilities. These include our complete Max-AI product line, which includes robotics and vision systems. These provide data to our Total Intelligence Platform, giving operators the first look at material composition data from vardious locations in the plant in one location.
Robotics clearly allow a reduction in variability in material quality and allow operators to drive efficiency by providing material data.
Waste360: How has technology changed the waste and recycling industry?
Thomas Brooks: The application of AI in a real way has had the greatest impact on the industry recently. This includes robotic sorting and data creation.
Waste360: What is an emerging technology that you see impacting the industry most in the future?
Thomas Brooks: We are nowhere near the end of the impact AI will have on our industry. This includes new ways robots will be applied and the level AI is applied to the data analytics and controls space. The latter will have the greatest long-term impact on the industry. There are also impactful emerging technologies focused on localized material conversion. This will start to drive changes in processing over the next two to five years.
Waste360: What is your leadership style?
Thomas Brooks: Most days, I am more of a Master Yoda; however, if you ask my team, there are those moments that I’m more Emperor Palpatine. Sorry for the “Star Wars” analogy. I consider myself as someone who is focused on guidance and creation. I am very big on creating the right culture.
I ask my team to be three things daily: Be present, be engaged, be committed. If they have done this and expect the same from those they lead, then we are being successful and moving forward. I consider it my core responsibility to acquire the right team members. In simple terms, I feel it is every leader’s responsibility to set the vision, define the deliverable and remove barriers that limit success.
Waste360: What professional accomplishment are you most proud of?
Thomas Brooks: Besides being chosen for the 40 Under 40? Picking one is really tough, so I am going to pick two. The first is building a successful R&D [research and development] program, which is centered around developing a great team. When I started at BHS, there really wasn’t an R&D program. There was a lot of discussion, but no one was leading or organizing the effort to deliver results.
Having the opportunity to create a vision and a team has been a huge effort but also a great accomplishment. The second is starting in the fall of 2018, I assumed the operational reasonability of the NRT business unit.
Having the opportunity to build a culture that strives to improve and deliver has been a great experience. Building on that to create an organization that delivers consistent results and performance continues to be an accomplishment I am proud of.
Waste360: How have you been able to make an impact on the industry?
Thomas Brooks: While the award is focused on me and my accomplishments, it is the great team and leadership that has allowed me to have this level of impact. I am very happy to be part of such a great and important industry. I have the honor and pleasure of knowing some truly great people in this industry, and they have been a huge help to me. To all of them I say, “Thank you!”