One of Apple’s biggest launches last year wasn’t a new iPhone or
Mac: It was Liam, a robot that takes apart iPhones so their
components can be recycled.
It turns out, “Liam” is actually 29 different robots organized in
an conveyor line with 21 stations, or “cells.” Every 11 seconds,
an iPhone can be taken apart into eight different pieces.
Apple estimates that each Liam can take apart 1.2 million iPhone
6 units in a year, and it currently has two of them up and
running — one in California, and one in the Netherlands.
At the end of the process, Apple is left with boxes comprised of
only a single component — like a screw, or a battery. It looks
Apple also revealed how it designed Liam. One of the challenges
for the robot is that Liam only takes apart thoroughly busted
iPhones, which means that one broken iPhone can actually look
very different from another broken iPhone.
Here’s how Apple tackled that problem:
The system utilizes two main types of processes to remove
components: (1) end-of-arm-tooling (EOAT) such as a drill bit,
suction cup or fixed tip interacting with a stationary iPhone
unit; and (2) direct robot handling of the iPhone unit to
interact with external active tooling while performing complex
coordinated motions. The EOAT on the robotic arms and external
tool fixtures are all custom developed for the Liam line, as is
the conveyor system that transports the iPhone units between
Some iPhone components can be tricky to remove, like the battery.
Because of the risk of a battery exploding, Apple puts the iPhone
into a steel compartment called the “sandbox” while it’s being
disconnected and unscrewed.
Then, Apple actually heats up the battery to loosen up the glue
that’s used to affix it to the iPhone, while a suction cup pulls
the battery out. Then, the battery needs to cool down before it’s
removed from its metal box.
If the battery seems like it’s too hot, Apple will literally pour
sand into the “sandbox” until it cools down.
Here’s how Apple illustrates it:
The reason Apple is investing in Liam is because it’s much easier
to recycle materials when the parts are already sorted. Apple
announced an audacious goal on Wednesday to make all iPhones out
of recycled materials — no raw materials necessary — although it
did not specify a timeframe.
“While still an R&D project, Liam is a critical step in the
journey toward establishing a closed-loop supply chain for
Apple,” according to the white paper.
However, the research that is going into Liam may portend more
automated manufacturing in Apple’s future. After all, if it can
take apart an iPhone using automation, perhaps the same tools and
processes will be able to assemble one as well.
This article and images was originally posted on Business Insider
by Kif Leswing