Gone in 60 seconds

Look down at your phone to read a text and you’ll miss it. A new robot designed through a partnership between Conestoga College and electronics recycler Greentec, dismantles old hard drives in under one minute. The robotic cell, called Lexi, allows for a much cleaner separation of components, not to mention a quicker disassembly process for hard drive recycling.

“Greentec typically sees around eight tonnes of hard drives a month. Until the arrival of Lexi we recovered some hard drive components by manually disassembling them,” says Tony Perrotta, the company’s president and CEO.

A major obstacle with hard drives is the difficulty in cost-effectively separating and recovering useful materials, like rare earth magnets.

“We’re looking at the way we’re processing hard drives specifically, and we realized that it was taking us a lot of time,” Perrotta says. “There were two problems we were trying to overcome. One was labour to disassemble them and to recover components. The other was when we would run them through our shredder, we would save the labour but then we would get a lot of commingled and contaminated downstreams.”

Before Lexi, using the shredder, the material produced was only at 80 percent purity. When Lexi does the dismantling it reaches between 95 and 100 percent.

Student project

Kitchener, Ontario-based Conestoga College and Cambridge, Ontario-based Greentec have collaborated in the past on research projects including optical

sorting and ink and toner cartridge cleaning and sorting.. Perrotta says as a polytechnic college Conestoga has the “depth and breadth of being able to handle these type of projects.”

Lexi was a ground up project where most of the components were made in-house and all of the programming was done by Greentec staff and Conestoga students working together.

A new hard drive has to be completely catalogued and described so that Lexi will know how to take it apart. For now about 48 hard drives can be loaded into the unit, although Perrotta says that may grow.

He describes the disassembly: “It takes the circuit board off and places it in a location, then it takes the face plate off. Now, inside the hard drive it takes off the voice coil recorder. Then it takes the disc off. It removes the rare earth magnets and separates all these components. In the end what you have is a shell made of extruded aluminum.”

“The new robotic cell is truly a game changer for the electronic recycling industry,” says Dr. Hamid Karbasi, Conestoga College’s NSERC Industrial Research Chair for Colleges in Advanced Recycling Technologies for Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE). “With Lexi, recyclers can efficiently and effectively recover valuable materials and increase the rate at which these materials can be reused.”

The future with Lexi looks bright. The company planned to go into full production with the robot this fall.

“We look forward to further exploring other electronic devices that could be dismantled using the robotic cell,” says Perrotta. “Laptops, mobile phones, and tablets contain numerous high-value components that could be targeted through this robotic separation system.”