Apple’s teardown robot and the entire iPhone recycling process is an extremely complex endeavor and has built-in safety features to minimize the risk and impact of battery explosions.
As part of its efforts to reduce digital waste and recover materials, in part to reduce the amount of mining that takes place, Apple uses robots to quickly and carefully disassemble iPhones sent for recycling.
His first effort, “Liam”, was presented in 2016 to critical acclaim, while 2018 brought with it the improved version “Daisy.” However, outside of occasional appearances to bolster Apple’s environmental credentials, the company hasn’t really gone into detail about how each robot works.
In a pair of patents issued by the US Patent and Trademark Office on Tuesday, both titled “Modular System for Automatic Disassembly of Portable Electronic Devices,” Apple explains some of the methods it uses with its robots. It also covers some of the logistics that can come into play when it comes to massive hardware disassembly.
Apple refers to a “thermal event” multiple times in the patent claims, which refers to a battery rupturing. A broken battery can be a hazard to both humans and machinery, as Samsung’s Note battery problems demonstrate.
The first patent, number 11,045,913, explains a method of disassembling a portable electronic device, shown in pictures like an iPhone. The patent covers how the system is inherently modular, with each module handling a different phase of the disassembly process.
For each device that enters the system, data about the device is generated, usually by a camera, which takes measurements of the case. Based on these measurements, the first module removes the display assembly, while the second removes the battery, followed by other modules that perform similar tasks.
Modules can communicate with each other, store disassembly instructions based on case measurements, detect components, detect the rate at which a device’s case heats up or cool down, and bend case angles.
Swing arms are used to remove batteries from the glue, while cooling units reduce the temperatures of components that may have become hot during the process.
The second patent, 11,051,441, follows the same subject area, but deals largely with the logistics aspect rather than the disassembly itself, and even more so with the detection and management of temperatures.
Using a conveyor to transport the devices between modules, the system can deposit the removed parts and components at a receiving station. Devices and removed parts are stored in a container that moves along the belt, one that is non-conductive and potentially lined with a fire retardant material.
At various times, the system will monitor the temperature of the container and its contents using a thermal imaging camera. This is to ensure that the device is not too hot to remove from the container, as it would be a hazard to the disassembly process itself.
If the device exceeds an allowable temperature threshold range associated with a disassembly stage, the container will be stopped and prevented from moving until the temperature drops to a suitable level.
Another version of the transport system can include a “moving train”, with containers that have sensors to detect the presence of components. If a component is detected, the train can be activated to move from one station to another.
A thermal sensor could also be used to monitor component temperatures, which again can warn if the part is too hot.
Thermal events sometimes appear towards the end, including defining the container as a “thermal event containment container.” There is also the suggestion that the system could “be kept at a negative pressure to prevent any gas associated with the electronic component that reaches a thermal event from escaping from the system.”
A controller can be configured to prevent a part from being removed at the extraction station if a thermal event is reached. This could be read as Apple not wanting to deposit a broken battery in a cell with other batteries, to avoid a chain reaction of battery failure.
The patents were filed on April 12, 2019.
The first patent lists its inventors as Patrick S. Wieler, Charissa Rujanavech, Mark Lewis, Thomas Loeper, Dan Powell, Jason Schwarz, Jon Sever, and Darragh Stauntion. The second was invented by Patrick S. Wieler, Charissa Rujanavech, Sean P. Shannon, James Fikert, Roy Mahalas, Dan Powell, and Jason Schwarz.
Apple files numerous patent applications weekly, but while the existence of a patent indicates areas of interest to Apple’s research and development teams, it does not guarantee that the ideas will appear in a future product or service.
It’s unclear if Apple employs any of the measures outlined in the patents, but it seems plausible that it took steps to make your workspace as safe as possible to work in.
While Apple has embraced using a robot to take apart an iPhone, the same cannot be said for assembling devices. The company is working to automate its production lines, but its assembly partners still rely on armies of workers on the production lines to assemble the parts.
Apple has also explored the possibility of using robots in consumer products. In the case of a September 2019 patent, Apple suggested that a tiny robot could run across a garage floor and plug a charger under an Apple Car.
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