Jun 01, 2016

Lame Liam

Words by Bruce Bratley

It’s back to the Future for Apple’s Recycling Robot...

I was immediately piqued when I saw that Apple had built a recycling machine and I eagerly watched the video about Liam an impressive disassembly robot, described thus:

The Liam system consists of 29 robotic modules that can take apart one iPhone every 11 seconds and recovers valuable materials such as aluminium, copper, tin, tungsten and gold. (See the video here)

Something didn’t sit well with me about Liam and then I remembered the excited presenters on Tomorrow’s World describing the future of car manufacture, here is an extract from the New Scientist (June, 1980):

In the [British Leyland] Longbridge plant, automated welding equipment first applies a few welds to the parts to tack them in the right positions. Then the body is transferred by a conveyor system past a line of 28 robots. Each robot does a specific welding operation … (Sorry, no video from 1980!)

And that was it! I felt uneasy because Apple had taken 26 years to add one robot and then pressed Rewind on a car factory … maybe they bought some kit when Longbridge closed down?

But what’s wrong with a robot that can de-manufacture an iPhone in 11 seconds? Surely Apple should be congratulated?

There’s a lot right with it, for example it is fantastic that a robot can autonomously disassemble a complex electrical item, making it possible for items to be re-used and hopefully re-purposed in Apple’s own products? It is great that we can achieve a much better level and quality of recycling if products are first deconstructed. Extracting gold and copper from thousands of cameras is much more efficient when they are separated from the rest of the phone. This is much better than our current method of WEEE recycling which involves crushing and then sorting fragments of metals, REMs (Rare Earth Metals), plastics and circuit board.

Maybe Apple are onto something here and Liam is the future of recycling; we can now carefully and systematically take something apart and then recycle or reuse it. Will this herald a new era for reuse, remanufacture and recycling. Surely?

So, I am excited and I think Apple deserve credit for Liam. But I am disappointed because the biggest tech firm on the planet that invented the iPhone and is soon to bring us a driverless car could build a robot based on technology invented in the seventies; a miniaturised car plant in rewind.

Apple could have done better than this for many reasons. Why can Liam only dissemble ONE model of iPhone and why so slowly? Apple sold 231 million phones sold in 2015 and at 11 per second, or 1.2m a year this would take Liam 190 years. Add to that 500million of previous models and Liam has his work cut out.

But he can’t recycle the other models and that’s where my disappointment starts. Amazon sells 108 million different electrical items and each one at some point will need to be recycled. If we could disassemble these items before recycling their parts we would save many more resources. Apple should use their money and expertise to build a self-learning robot that can study the Amazon catalogue of electronic items and figure out how to recognise and dissemble each and every one. Imagine a robot that could process a skip of electrical items and produce items for recycling and reuse.

Sorry Apple, but I think the car makers are ahead of you here … Mini’s factory in Cowley has 1,000 robots that can choose the right parts from a box, recalibrate and build 200,000 cars in a year. Unlike Apple, these robots can build many different models and adopt to build future models. So where’s the cutting edge innovation we expect from Apple … maybe they should talk to BMW? Or those geniuses at UNSW.

I like Liam, I like the fact he has a name and does good, but Apple should grasp recycling by the horns (name of next robot = Toro) and use artificial intelligence to build something that can un-build more than one model. They should find a way of reusing items from old phones in new phones and ultimately build a machine that can de-manufacture any phone. It would also be good to see more support for collecting 700m iPhones so they are returned for recycling at the end of their lives.

But then Liam has had 2 million views on YouTube and that has to be the most popular recycling promo video ever! And if you do have an iPhone to recycle, go to Apple...Liam is waiting.

By Bruce Bratley

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