Modems get a new lease of life with help of ABB robot


The challenge: 
An Italian recycling company wanted to automate a process that tests modems so that they can be reused for end customers. The process would free up people to do other jobs while improving productivity and ensuring consistent process quality. 

The solution: 
Working with ABB, the company designed a cell based on an ABB robot. The cell takes modems, identifies them through a unique bar code, places them on a test stand, connects leads, switches the modems on and recognises their status via the device’s LED light. It then resets the modem, placing working units in a box ready for delivery and sending rejected devices for scrapping. 

The internet communications industry has a huge turnover of electronic network appliances such as modems and routers. As people get special offers from service providers, they will often receive a new modem which they may only use for a few months before returning it when the contract expires.  

Recycling these devices to enable them to be put back into use avoids sending them to landfill, eliminating the creation of added waste and saving the need to consume additional energy and materials that would be needed to produce new modems.  

An Italian recycling company is achieving exactly this by using ABB robots to test modem devices to ensure that they work, allowing them to be put back into the customer supply stream. 

SEVal S.r.l is the Italian leader in WEEE (Waste Electric and Electronic Equipment) recycling, with plants throughout the country. The company recycles all kinds of electronic appliances from both households and companies, including printers, mobiles, and modems. 2021 saw the company collect over 155,000 tons of electronic waste for recycling and recovery. 

Recovery of working modems and routers is performed for Italy’s second largest telecoms service provider, which wants to reuse devices as much as possible to avoid the extra expense of purchasing new items. The testing process has several steps. The first is a manual stage, where the device is examined to see if it conforms to the required aesthetic standards. Items are removed from the process if they are scratched, broken, or defaced in any way. 

The next step is a ‘switch on and reset’ to ensure that broken items do not go any further. The third step is a deep test to confirm that the device is fully functional.  Once these steps have been performed, the final stage involves the modem being cleaned, re-packaged and returned to the network.  

Repetitive task best suited for robots 

The second stage of the process, where the modem is switched on and reset, is now being performed by an ABB robot.  Stefano Spavioli manages the department that recycles the devices and worked with ABB to develop the robotic solution.  “The task is very repetitive and time consuming. We were using two people in two shifts. With a total of four people, we could process 800 devices a day. Now, with the robot method, we can process 900 pieces a day. The staff have been moved to other more diverse and rewarding tasks, such as cleaning the modems and packaging them for shipment. The workers are happy to see we are investing to give them other jobs and tasks to do.” 

Testing process poses challenges 

The company began investigation and planning of the project in March 2021 and the robot was installed in November 2021. 

The robot was programmed with the help of RobotStudio®, ABB’s offline emulation tool that allows the robot application to be assessed and fine-tuned before it is placed in the actual workspace. 

To make it easier to pick the appliances, they are horizontally arranged in plastic boxes. The robot finds an appliance using a vision system. It picks the appliance up and places it onto a testing station, then changes the gripper tool and rotates the modem.  

The robot then scans a barcode. The cell is connected to a database that contains information about the modem and all the details needed to control the test. One essential piece of data to capture is how many times the modem has come back from the network – if it has been returned more than once or twice, it is probably not a good device and will need to be rejected.  

The first step in the test is to connect the power jack. This is a challenging task for the robot as the jack is a very small connection that needs to enter a small hole. The robot will then switch the modem on and off as part of the testing process.  

One challenge was to program the cell so that it could detect the colour of the modem’s LED, allowing it to recognise the status of the modem and send this information to the robot. 

Following this, the modem is reset, which involves targeting an even smaller connection hole, the position of which can vary. Modems that pass the test are placed by the robot in a specific box for transport to the next stage, while failed units are sent for scrapping. Shredders open and break the casings while circuit boards are recovered for valuable materials. 

Fine tuning brings success 

With the help of ABB and its RobotStudio® offline programming software, Stefano was able to address a number of challenges. “In the beginning, we needed several programming updates to account for the lighting conditions, which were causing the robot some issues with reading the appliance name.  

“We also experimented with the optimization of procedures, the sequence of operations and the time the robot spends checking the device. Initially, we were achieving 600 pieces per day with the robot. By changing the timing parameters, we were able to optimize this performance to reach 900 pieces a day.” 

Another challenge was that the telecoms provider changed the shape, weight and model of the modems, which now take the form of cylinders weighing 2kg, rather than the flatter, more box-like shape of the previous type. “Both ABB and the robot needed the flexibility to adapt to the new model,” says Stefano. 

The scheme has huge cost benefits for the telecom service provider, with each recycled modem costing between 60 and 80 percent less than buying a new unit. “The robot enables the process to be carried out more cost effectively compared to the manual techniques and also produces less waste through more accurate testing,” says Stefano. 

For SEVal, the automated process improves its reputation as a hi-tech recycler playing a major role in the circular economy. 

Stefano sees the support that ABB could offer in developing the robot cell as crucial to the project. “ABB is a trustworthy company with a professional approach and can deliver the performance they promise. They helped with the programming to get the cell set up correctly - I know I can count on ABB’s support and help.” 

The success of the project has led to the company investigating other recycling processes that could be ripe for robotic automation. 


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