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Intelligent Machines

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.

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”)

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