Bringing robots into the circular economy

There is no doubt that the world is facing several environmental crises – from pollution to excessive waste of energy and resources to too many products simply dumped and discarded at the end of their lives. Wasting energy and materials and then producing or extracting more to make even more products is not only unsustainable, it drains the world’s capacity to supply more resources and absorb the waste we produce.

Clearly, we need a much more circular economy -one that uses waste and discarded products and materials as a valuable resource, allowing us to cut down on the amount of virgin material we need to extract, process and transport.

This is the message of the Circularity Gap Report 2023 [1] – with a global circular economy, we could meet everyone’s needs using only 70 percent of the materials we currently extract and use. Currently, the materials that are recycled back into the economy at the end of their lives account for only 7.2 percent of all material inputs into the economy. This small percentage has only decreased over the years. To find a solution, the authors of the report have identified four areas where action can be taken to improve circularity. One of these is ‘Manufactured goods and consumables,’ and a major ambition within this is to extend the lifetime of equipment, machinery, and goods.

Robots play a role in cutting waste

With their ability to carry out precise movements repeatedly and consistently, robots play a major role in reducing wasted materials. As a result, we’ve seen an explosion in robot sales, with the latest report from the International Federation of Robots (IFR) [2] identifying 2021 as a record year, with an all-time high of over 500,000 new industrial robots being installed in factories around the world.

This growth is encouraging for robot manufacturers like ABB and using robots undoubtedly brings great benefits to users - but what happens at the end of a robot’s operational life? Manufacturers like ABB are constantly finding ways to reduce their ecological footprint and disposing of robots responsibly is a key component of a circular economy.

To help achieve this, ABB offers services that ensure that its robots play their part in solving the world’s sustainability challenges. This six-step approach not only helps companies to support the circular economy, but it also brings economic benefits.

Designed to last

ABB’s drive to ensure the long-term sustainability of its robots begins at the design stage. Designed with quality and longevity in mind, some ABB robots have been in use for more than 35 years. Swedish engineering firm Magnussons, for example, received its first ABB robot in 1974. After 42 years of constant operation, this robot only stopped working when the company closed its production site in 2016.

Extended lifetimes

ABB offers several solutions that extend the lifetime of robots, such as data-driven services that enable users to take actions that will maximize the lifetime of their robots. These services include, Preventive Maintenance, Condition –based maintenance (CBM) and Connected Services.
The CBM service enables customers to understand which are the most stressed robots.

The first level considers the entire robot fleet, during which the most heavily used robots are identified. At the second level, these robots are checked in detail, with ABB experts conducting further analysis to find the causes of the overload and recommend a tailor-made maintenance strategy.

With this service, a robot’s life can be extended, contributing to the circular economy, byreducing the maintenance needed.

In industry, this service helped a major automotive manufacturer to identify the most stressed robots in its facility, producing preventive maintenance actions that will help 280 robots continue to work until 2035, despite already accumulating 25,000 production hours.

Giving robots a second life

As the saying goes, all good things come to an end, and the same applies to robots. Once a robot has reached the end of its operational life, ABB offers a remanufacturing, buy-back service that sees products and components re-used or re-cycled. Typically, 60 to 80 percent of a robot can be reused, while the rest is sent to certified recycling partners. For example, nearly all ABB robots used in the automotive industry get a second life, with up to a fifth even getting a third.

ABB’s six remanufacturing centers, across Asia, Europe and the United States, take back around 250 robots per year, giving them a second life with new or the same customers.

With increased lead times due to supply chain disruption, largely a result of the global pandemic, 2022 saw an increase of more than 25 percent in the demand for refurbished robots and ABB expects the demand to increase further still as manufacturers look for more sustainable solutions.

Over the last 25 years, thousands of robots have been refurbished and upgraded by ABB’s remanufactured robot teams. In addition to previously owned robots, peripheral equipment such as controllers and manipulators are refurbished to an “as-new” condition.

Before being labelled as an ABB-certified remanufactured robot, every second-hand unit undergoes rigorous checks, including a detailed inspection and a minimum 16-hour functional test. Each remanufactured robot comes with a two-year warranty and can also be upgraded to operate with the latest controller.

When buying refurbished equipment, users enjoy the same level of support from local service teams, including installation and training, as they would when purchasing a new ABB robot.

Buying refurbished robots can cut 75 percent of the CO2 emitted during production, compared to purchasing new robots. For example, disposing of an ABB IRB 6640 as scrap would waste 1.4 tons of material, mainly metal, which takes a lot of energy and thus emissions to recover and reprocess.

Building a circular economy with robots

As the world wakes up to environmental problems, more robot users are embracing the circular economy. In helping to maximize the useful life of its robots -reusing them and disposing of them responsibly at the end of their life -ABB is helping robot operators find solutions to a more sustainable way of operating.



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