Bringing robotics to electronics

Bringing robotics to electronics

An Ontario electronics recycler partners with a local university to develop a robot that dismantles hard drives.

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August 8, 2019

Earlier this summer, Greentec, an electronic waste and recycling center based in Cambridge, Ontario, developed a robotic cell called Project Lexi to dismantle hard drives in a matter of minutes. The company partnered with local Conestoga College, Kitchener, Ontario, to work on the development of Project Lexi the past three years. 

Greentec provides information technology asset disposition (ITAD) services and electronics recycling for customers across the U.S. and Canada. Greentec President and CEO Tony Perrotta says his company typically processes about 12,000 metric tons of electronics per year. 

He adds that Greentec usually receives about eight metric tons of hard drives per month. However, he adds that there are challenges when it comes to dismantling hard drives.

“We were using two methods to process hard drives,” he says. “Shred and separate the materials. The problems with traditional hard drives is they have rare earth magnets in them that attach to ferrous metals or screens, and you lose them. Every time you shred, no matter how clean, there’s some comingling. The other process is to take them apart by hand and disassemble them. It takes quite a bit of time to dismantle a hard drive.”

Perrotta adds that these two methods seemed to be “inefficient.” So, about three years ago, Greentec partnered with Conestoga College students to develop a robot that could perform this task better and quicker.

The result of the research is Project Lexi—a robotic cell that allows Greentec to recover all components within hard drives. Perrotta says it takes about four to five minutes to disassemble a hard drive by hand. The robotic cell can disassemble a hard drive in two minutes, and Perrotta hopes that time can decrease with additional troubleshooting. 

“Lexi allows us to recover valuable components from the drive, including rare earth magnets, aluminum casing, circuit boards and stainless-steel covers among many other materials from these hard drives,” Perrotta says. “Once the materials have been recovered, they can be reused in the creation of new hard drives or other products, including servo motors and high-efficiency energy appliances.”

Greentec plans to incorporate Project Lexi at its operations in September during a trial period to see if the technology is applicable on a larger scale. Perrotta says Greentec is patenting the robotic cell and hopes to license it for others to use in the future. 

Ongoing partnership with students

This isn’t the first time Conestoga College helped Greentec on a project. Perrotta says his company has partnered with the university on various projects since 2010. He adds that the college has a research chair dedicated to researching technologies for recycling electronic wastes. Undergraduate students, most of whom are in engineering programs, have helped research various projects for Greentec in recent years. Perrotta says the research gives students practical experience to help them before they graduate.

Perrotta says working with undergraduate students is challenging in that several students graduate each semester while the projects are still being researched. He says the turnover of students does slow down the research process. However, he adds that Greentec has been able to complete five projects to date with the college.  

“The first [project] was a sorting line, sorting different types of products, mainly for ink and toner cartridges,” Perrotta says. “Then we set up a cleaning line to clean toner cartridges—you can’t shred those since that toner dust is flammable. You need to clean them first. So, we set up a preprocess cleaning line with Conestoga College. Then after that [project] we did an optical sorter project. Then, we looked at an LCD processing robot. Then, we did Project Lexi.” 

In the future, Perrotta says Greentec wants to partner with Conestoga College on using robotics for processing other electronic devices. For the time being, he says he is most focused on making sure he can scale up Project Lexi. 

“We look forward to further exploring other devices that could be dismantled using the robotic cell process,” Perrotta says. “Products like laptops, mobile phones and tablets contain numerous high-value components that could be targeted through this robotic separation system. Our focus now is we don’t want to bite off too much. We want to get Project Lexi from 1.0 to 2.0.”