Apple has developed a robotic system, named Liam,  to disassemble damaged iPhones in order to recover valuable materials which can be recycled. Liam is a huge robot, consisting of 29 separate robotic arms at various skill stations. The reason behind this innovation is the fact that although Apple’s products are smooth in design, they are so tightly constructed that their parts are difficult to be taken apart, repaired and reused. Liam, currently, focuses only on iPhones, but Apple plans to modify and expand the system so it can deal with different devices and salvage more resources.

How Liam Works

Because of its size Liam is compared to a standard horizontal assembly line, and it also makes the usual sounds for such a system. Each of twenty nine robotic arms has a different role, and some of them have drills, screwdrivers and suction cups.

The process, which takes eleven seconds to complete, starts when a worker puts several iPhones onto a conveyor belt (it can work on forty at a time). The screen of each iPhone is removed from its back casing, then the pieces are moved via conveyor belt to a part where the battery is removed, etc. Each of the twenty nine parts has a small tablet display, which tracks the inside of the robot and the devices going through, so if there are any problems with separating a component, a “failed attempt” message shows up on that display.

It is claimed by Apple, that Liam’s success rate is 97 percent. Also, Liam is optimized to, when one robot breaks down, continue working for around 30 minutes until a backup occurs.

Why Is This Important

Apple has been criticized by some environmental activists and organizations for not making their products greener. They are extremely difficult to break apart in order to be upgraded or recycled.

Electronic waste from batteries, for example, is a growing problem in developing nations, where the majority of this waste ends up. Liam carefully dismantles the numerous parts of returned iPhones, such as SIM card trays, batteries, screws and cameras, removing each part bit by bit making them easier to recycle.

Liam does this with precision, so that different materials, glass and plastic, for instance, do not get mixed up with copper. These parts can, later on, be sold to recycling traders who focus on specific materials such as nickel, aluminium, copper, cobalt and tungsten. So, these materials can be reused instead of being disposed on a landfill, where they may take decades to decompose, while leaking toxic materials into the ground.

Liam is Apple’s response to criticism and an attempt of addressing the increasing problem of e-waste. It is also something that Apple hopes its competitors will copy.

Future Plans

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Besides the US-based Liam, another Liam, meant for Europe is underway. This is a part of Apple’s effort to become a fully sustainable business. Currently, Liam supports only Iphone 6S devices, but it is planned to expand to other iOS models , ranging from iPods to iPads.  

Although Apple has been praised recently, by the US government and environmental groups,  it has not always been so. One reason was the fact that Apple was not removing toxic chemicals in its products, while Nokia and Samsung were doing that. Apple now states that sustainability is one of its biggest projects as they are using eco-friendly materials and technologies.

Apple is also encouraging customers to take back damaged iPhones with some incentives, other than a gift card or cash back, as they are hoping that customers want to do something good for the environment.

This Is a Great Idea

We should keep in mind that, although Liam is only the first attempt to exclude shredding from the recycling process,  its existence could be a sign of a major change of how products are built, used, broken apart and recycled into new products.

Posted by Oscar Waterworth

I am a writer and a tech enthusiast from Sydney. I am interested in cutting edge technology, business, and marketing. I hope to give proper insight into these worlds.