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Robots put to work on e-waste

UNSW researchers have programmed
industrial robots to tackle the vast array of e-waste thrown out by Australians
every year.

The research shows robots can learn and
memorise how various electronic products are designed, enabling them to be
disassembled for recycling at ever-increasing speeds.

It is a joint project by researchers at
the School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering’s
Sustainable Manufacturing and Life Cycle Engineering Research
Group (SMLCE) and the School of Computer Science and Engineering.

“There are millions of end-of-life
products that we don’t know how to disassemble, despite legislation that tells
us to do so,” SMLCE founder and project leader Professor Sami Kara says.

“The biggest problem is uncertainty – the
number of different products coming into e-recycling centres and their
condition.”

While humans can deal with product
variety, it is still labour-intensive and costly to break down products
one-by-one.

It is also potentially hazardous owing to
the risk of exposure to toxic materials used in electronics.

(Left-to-right) Dr. Supachai Vongbunyong, Research Associate; Wei Hua Chen, PhD candidate;
Professor Sami Kara.

The researchers now believe they can
automate the entire process with cognitive robotics.

“We’ve successfully proven that you can
teach a robot to disassemble LCD screens,” Professor Kara says.

“They break one or two but then they learn
and they don’t make the same mistake again.

“The idea is to remove the display and
printed circuit board without damaging them because the rest can be recycled.”

Although the robot took some time to
dismantle a screen it had never worked with before, “the next time a similar
model comes in it only takes minutes.”

With the concept proven in the lab, the
next phase is likely to involve industry trials.

Professor Kara also sees room to
incorporate additional industrial robots into the set-up to handle e-waste as
it loaded or unloaded from the robot performing disassembly.

“I’d like to look into using another robot
for materials handling purposes,” he says.

“You could isolate them in a cubicle, dump
the screens in and have them work 24×7 non-stop.”

It is believed similar techniques could be
used to recycle lithium batteries, which can be volatile to disassemble.

The full research team is Dr. Supachai
Vongbunyong, Professor Sami Kara, Associate Professor Maurice Pagnucco, and PhD
candidate Wei Hua Chen.

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