Apple: What Liam the Robot Can't Do

It can't recycle iPhones anywhere near as fast as Apple makes them.

What's not to love about Liam?

As portrayed in the video that debuted at last week's Apple event—and has since been viewed on YouTube 1.6 million times—Apple's new iPhone disassembly robot is pure green goodness.

"True innovation," we're told, "means considering what happens to a product at every stage of its life cycle. Liam disassembles your iPhone when it’s no longer functioning, so the materials inside can live on. Because in a world of limited resources, some things can't be replaced."

Sounds good. Looks even cooler. And would be a big step up from today's electronics recycling systems, which are not much more than industrial-strength shredding machines.

Maybe I've seen too many demos like this, but color me skeptical. To me, the 29-armed, warehouse-sized disassembly machine—three-years in the making—has all the earmarks of a proof-of-concept that doesn't scale up.

According Mashable's Samantha Murphy Kelly, who got a preview of Liam for a feature story posted last week, the system disassembles one iPhone every 11 seconds. That's 350 units an hour, 1.2 million iPhones a year.

Last year, Apple sold more than 230 million iPhones. One Liam is not going to make much of a dent in the toxic mountain of electronics waste Apple has helped create.

On the other hand, making a robot that can disassemble an iPhone is probably pretty good practice for building robots that can assemble iPhones.

How much did Liam cost? Apple wouldn't say. Why am I not surprised?

Cue the video, one-minute long:


  1. Richard Wanderman said:
    I think you miss the point on Liam: it will scale by adding another Liam… Built no-doubt by Liam’s brother…

    But, to me, more importantly, Apple has a knack for turning something as mundane as recycling into something interesting and slick and that only adds to the brand.

    March 27, 2016
    • David Emery said:
      That’s right. This should scale linearly. Two robots recycle twice as many phones as one robot.

      But I think the more interesting question is how Apple will exploit its expertise in robotic assembly.

      March 27, 2016
      • Richard Wanderman said:
        I agree, more robots are in Apple’s future, including in assembly. Robotic assembly is in Apple’s history: Jobs had a plant in Fremont assembling the Mac and had another one assembling the NeXT. It can be done and no doubt will be. The interesting question will be, where will that robotic assembly plant live? Seems, according to Cook, that it’ll live where the supply chain is: Asia.

        March 27, 2016
  2. George Row said:
    Well the necessary scaling factor depends on the life expectancy of an iPhone, and the annual sales in the year – life-expectancy years ago.
    Remember the real life expectancy is not the same as the upgrade cycle time. Even though affluent people who can afford the latest iPhone may upgrade it in one or two years time, their discarded iPhone is probably fit to be refurbished and then reused by someone else.
    Considering my experience – we have an iPhone 5 and an iPhone 6 in my household; a neighbour’s son, recently bought a refurbished iPhone 5C that he expects to use for a another year or more; another neighbour is still using her original iPhone 4.

    So is it three, four, even six years in some cases.

    So how many iPhones did Apple sell in 2012? Was it 60m? So could they build 50 copies of Liam? That sounds scalable to me.
    Presumably they will need a specialist version of Liam for each model? Same hardware, but programmed differently?

    March 27, 2016

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