Rethinking Recycling

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A team of researchers investigates an automated way to reuse, recycle and remanufacture electronic components.

Have you ever stopped to think about what happens to your cell phone, desktop computer, TV or other electronic device after you’ve discarded it? The question of what to do with old equipment has long piqued the interest of academia and industry alike, generating numerous journal articles and the commerce of disassembly, recycling and disposal. Part of the interest is in the recovery of valuable components while other interest lies in the proper treatment of hazardous parts.

The disassembly of end-of-life products, i.e., products that have a useful life but for which there is little to no demand, is an established industry, and cost recovery is partly managed by recycling and reusing viable materials and components. Some may think that’s the end of the story. “Not so fast,” says Elif Kongar, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Technology Management and Mechanical Engineering at the University of Bridgeport. “While there are many recycling centers and companies that specialize in this disassembly, these operations are complex, time-consuming, and expensive. Some cost recovery occurs through the resale of valuable materials, such as silver and copper, and reusable subcomponents. Still, multiple uncertainties render the process to be a costly one because it is labor intensive,” she explains.

“With the continuous development of technology in today’s world, the total life span of electronic products is no more than a few years . . . The economically and environmentally sustainable option is to reuse these components in technically-valid products.” – Conger

Green engineering through sustainability and disassembly is now being looked at in a new way by Kongar and her research partners Tarek M. Sobh, Ph.D., P.E., Vice President for Graduate Studies and Research, Dean of the School of Engineering and Distinguished Professor of Engineering and Computer Science at UB; Surendra M. Gupta, Ph.D., Department of Mechanical Engineering and Industrial Engineering at Northeastern University; and a doctoral engineering student at UB. “The whole paradigm of green engineering is ‘reuse, recycle, and remanufacture,’ and that is just what we are trying to do with the end-of-life electronic products, but through an automatic electronic method,” says Sobh.

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Kongar further explains, “With the continuous development of technology in today’s world, the total life span of electronic products is no more than a few years. Most of the time, products are being discarded before their materials degrade. The economically and environmentally sustainable option is to reuse these components in technically valid products. The main problem is that actual disassembly operations are very complex, time-consuming and expensive to run with human labor.” The process of assembly is straightforward: the blueprint is created and implemented, but disassembly is not that process in reverse.

The team proposes a new model for disassembly that employs robots and introduces the use of an online dynamic genetic algorithm to conduct an “intelligent” survey and assessment of modular components, followed by the coordination of the disassembly process. According to Kongar this allows for a time-effective assessment of both typical and uncommon alterations that may have been made after product purchase through repair, upgrade or to meet personal preferences.

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The disassembly “cell” consists of an industrial robotic manipulator fitted with a webcam, and a PC enhanced with additional hard drive and RAM that is programmed with component segmentation and range-sensing visual algorithms. The algorithm streamlines this process to maximize flexibility while minimizing the time needed to complete the disassembly task.

Preliminary results obtained through the development and testing of a prototype are promising. While little research has been conducted on this environmentally driven and economically promising method, it may be exactly what is needed to be able to manage the volume of end-of-life products that seems to be growing exponentially in this era of technology explosion.

A technical description of this model can be found in an article published in the March 2012 issue of the Journal of Intelligent and Robotic Systems, “A Robotic-Driven Disassembly Sequence Generator for End-of-Life Electronic Products.”

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