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 like this:
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 robotic cells.
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.
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