How and why Apple's robot Liam disassembles iPhones

Apple introduced Liam last year, and now, new details show how (and why) it disassembles old iPhones.
Written by Kelly McSweeney, Contributor

Apple has released new details about Liam, its line of robots that disassembles the iPhone 6 so that individual components can be reused to make new gadgets in the future. Liam was first introduced last year, and now that the pilot has been successful, there are plans to expand the project. This will help Apple meet a new lofty goal to make its products entirely from recycled materials.

According to Apple's 2017 Environmental Responsibility Report, "We've already begun using the reclaimed aluminum to build new devices. We took aluminum enclosures Liam recovered from iPhone 6, melted them down, and reused the material to create Mac mini computers that we use in our iPhone final assembly facilities. We wanted to show it was possible to use our own scrap to build new products."

When iPhones and other devices reach the end of their useful life, they become electronic waste, or e-waste. It's hard to pin down exactly how much e-waste there is in the world. Some dead electronic devices sit in basements and junk drawers, others get tossed in local landfills, and many get shipped off to developing countries.

At places like the Agbogbloshie dump in Ghana, mountains of e-waste create hazards for public health and the environment. Despite the risks, e-waste is stripped and sold for parts, which include many valuable and finite materials. Even when e-waste is properly recycled, current practices involve shredding, which doesn't recover the maximum amount of material (and when it is recovered the quality is compromised).

Liam can help reduce hazardous e-waste while also saving components so that Apple doesn't have to buy the same materials all over again. The robotic system can recover aluminum, copper, gold, platinum group metals, silver, tin, rare Earth elements, cobalt, tungsten, and tantalum.

Currently, there are two Liam lines running -- one in California and another in the Netherlands. Each Liam line includes 29 robots in 21 cells. The robots can disassemble an iPhone every 11 seconds, which adds up to a potential to take apart as many as 2.4 million phones each year. They use tools such as a drill bit or a suction cup to take apart the iPhone 6 and separate the following components: coverglass assembly (CGA), battery, main logic board (MLB), receiver, speaker, alert module, rear facing camera, and housing.

It sounds fairly simple, but each step is the result of many hours of research and development. The lithium ion battery, for example, is removed by a multi-step process that involves applying heat to the battery loosen the adhesive. This dangerous move takes place in a sandbox (literally a box of sand), which was designed to detect and prevent a fire.

Batteries are removed in a steel sandbox in case of a fire. (Image: Apple)

Properly recycling e-waste is a decent start, but it would be even better for Apple to reduce the amount of defunct gadgets by making gadgets that last longer. In an interview with Vice, Lisa Jackson, Apple VP of Environment, Policy and Social Initiatives and a former head of the EPA said that Apple doesn't plan to make its devices easier to repair. "Technology is really complex," she said, "It is sophisticated to make it work, to ensure that you have security and privacy, [and] that somebody isn't giving you bad parts."

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