Skip to Content

Apple’s Recycling Robot May Help Build iPhones, Too

Few people noticed, but Apple did announce a remarkable and transformative new technology at its event on Monday: its first robot.
March 22, 2016

Apple now makes robots. What’s more, the company’s new recycling robot, called Liam, may be evidence of a push to automate the production of the iPhone.

At Apple’s slightly humdrum event on Monday, the company showed a video of Liam carefully pulling iPhones apart for recycling. The cutesy clip showed the robot unscrewing and removing the device’s case and pulling apart different electronic chips with suction cups before tossing an iPhone shell into a bin.

What's most interesting about Liam is not its ability to pull phones apart, though—Apple has been automating the process of recycling damaged phones for some time. Rather, it is a glimpse into what an automated assembly process might look like.

Automation is rapidly moving into areas of manufacturing in China that have traditionally relied on low-cost manual skills because wages are rising so quickly—12 percent per year since 2001—and also because it offers an edge over competitors.

I visited several manufacturers in China recently to learn more about this trend, and I saw how rapidly they are adding robots to production lines. The shift seems inexorable, and it’s likely to shape the evolution of the Chinese economy, as well as the global manufacturing picture.

The technologies seen in the Liam video are becoming especially common at various stages of manufacturing. For example, the clip Apple showed included a camera capturing exactly how an opened iPhone was held in a custom robot arm so that another component could swoop in and remove screws. Apple gave Mashable a sneak peak at Liam before Monday’s reveal, and apparently there are 29 different robot arms working together to unscrew, detach, drill, and manipulate old iPhones.

Foxconn, which built its reputation on managing hundreds of thousands of workers, is already at the forefront of the automation revolution. The company has replaced tens of thousands of workers with robots already, and it recently began selling the robots it is developing as part of this push. Perhaps Liam is evidence that Apple is doing its part to automate manufacturing of its most iconic product.

(Read more: South China Morning Post, Mashable, McKinsey Quarterly, “China Wants to Replace Millions of Workers with Robots”)

Keep Reading

Most Popular

A Roomba recorded a woman on the toilet. How did screenshots end up on Facebook?

Robot vacuum companies say your images are safe, but a sprawling global supply chain for data from our devices creates risk.

A startup says it’s begun releasing particles into the atmosphere, in an effort to tweak the climate

Make Sunsets is already attempting to earn revenue for geoengineering, a move likely to provoke widespread criticism.

10 Breakthrough Technologies 2023

Every year, we pick the 10 technologies that matter the most right now. We look for advances that will have a big impact on our lives and break down why they matter.

These exclusive satellite images show that Saudi Arabia’s sci-fi megacity is well underway

Weirdly, any recent work on The Line doesn’t show up on Google Maps. But we got the images anyway.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.