Learning to make a sustainable difference

An ABB robot is playing a key role in an educational project to find new ways of minimizing the environmental impact of manufactured goods once they reach the end of their life. As part of an academic study into the potential for automated disassembly, the robot is helping to demonstrate a new concept that could transform the way that future products are designed, made, and recycled.

While the expanding range of choice has been a good thing for consumers, its impact has arguably been less positive for the environment. With manufacturers primarily focusing on differentiating their products on factors such as price, quality and individuality to attract customers, the other end of a product’s lifecycle can often get overlooked.  

The processes currently used to design and manufacture products can present problems when it comes to the recycling and recovery of materials. Many products are typically comprised of a variety of materials, which are often difficult to separate and recover at the disposal stage. As a result, a considerable amount of potentially recoverable material is lost, resulting in additional virgin materials needing to be used to produce new products.  

With developments in technology, various solutions are starting to appear that enable the sorting of shredded components to be automated, helping to improve both accuracy and speed. However, with these technologies still largely at the proving stage, there is still some way to go before they find their way into the mainstream. 

Stepping towards a recyclable future 

One way to overcome this problem is to design products that can be easily recycled at the end of their life to enable easier disassembly and help streamline the process of sorting component parts into separate fractions ready for recycling. This was the aim of a study by Max Ashford, a British student at the École Cantonale d'Art de Lausanne (ECAL), a university of art and design based in Renens in Switzerland. Titled RUEI_01, or ‘Robotic Unmanufacturing Embedded Information’, the study involved the creation of a concept training shoe that could be easily disassembled by a robot, with its component parts being sorted into readily recoverable fractions for recycling.  

“A fundamental flaw of many recycling processes is the lack of information about the objects being handled and what is used in them,” says Max. “While some items do get recycled, a lot of potentially recoverable materials that are harder to either identify or separate end up being sent to waste. If these materials could be effectively recovered and recycled, it would help to dramatically reduce the need for the extraction and processing of virgin materials with all the financial and environmental costs this entails.”  

The RUEI_01 project was devised to both challenge conventional approaches to product design and to demonstrate the feasibility of applying robotic automation to assist in the disassembly of a product and the recovery of the materials used to produce it. 

“To highlight what could be achieved by designing recyclability into a product from the outset, I wanted to use an object that would traditionally be difficult to recycle,” explains Max. “Trainers were the ideal choice. Typically comprising a range of different materials, including textiles, plastics and glue, they are normally just disposed of when they wear out, generating large quantities of waste that cannot be recycled.” 

Robotic de-manufacturing 

Having approached ABB Product Manager Benoit Gerber during the research phase of his project, Max asked whether ABB could provide both a robot and the support to help him turn his idea into reality. With ABB already involved in providing both equipment and expertise to teach robotic automation for students at schools, colleges and universities worldwide, Max was provided with a single arm collaborative YuMi® robot, together with the software needed to program it. 

“We are keen to show tomorrow’s workers how robots can play a major role in transforming manufacturing and to teach them the skills and expertise they will need to thrive in the workplaces of tomorrow,” says Benoit Gerber. “With its emphasis on sustainability, Max’s project also ties in with our aim of helping manufacturing companies to find ways to use technology to make both their production processes and their products more sustainable.”   

By demonstrating how products can be designed with recycling in mind from the outset, the RUEI_01 project presents new opportunities for manufacturers to minimize their environmental impact by both reducing waste and enabling the recovery of high-quality materials that can be used to produce future products.  

“The shoe used in the RUEI-01 project was designed to be robotically recycled and has all object information digitally embedded into it,” says Max. “Using this technique, a robot can be used to accurately ‘un-manufacture’ the shoe by disassembling and separating materials that can then be easily and efficiently recycled. This method has the potential to create truly accurate and verifiable fractions for recycled material of high quality.”  

Starting from scratch, Max developed a concept shoe featuring a detachable upper connected to a 3D printed sole by a series of cords. A QR code on the tongue section of the shoe contains information about the shoe, including the instructions required for disassembly.  

Starting with scanning the QR code, the robot begins taking the shoe apart, first severing the cords holding it together using the cutting tool. Once the cord is removed, the robot then uses its gripper to systematically removes the upper and other sections until just the sole remains. As each part is removed, it is placed into one of a series of dedicated boxes ready for it to be reused.    

Once the process is completed, the boxes containing the various parts of the shoe can be taken away, with the components ready for recycling. 

To carry out the operations needed to dismantle the shoe, the single-arm YuMi is equipped with various tools, including a special gripper for scanning the QR code and lifting the shoe, and a cutting tool for severing the cords. With its compact design and payload of up to 0.5kg, the robot is ideal for handling the lightweight materials involved in the project. Furthermore, with its extensive safety features, including the padded robot arm and emergency stop capabilities that can bring it to a halt in microseconds, YuMi eliminates the need for protective measures such as fencing, making it an ideal learning tool that can be safely deployed in a teaching environment.  

Another benefit of using the single-arm YuMi is its simplicity, which makes it especially ideal for first-time users. As well as lead-through programming, which allows users to program the robot by physically manipulating the arm into the required positions, YuMi also uses ABB’s new Wizard Easy Programming software, which eliminates the need for users to learn robotic coding by using simple graphical blocks representing different commands.  

“ABB’s Wizard Easy Programming software was great for a first-time user like myself who had never programmed a robot before,” says Max. “Instead of having to learn programming code, I was able to program the robot by dragging and dropping the relevant command blocks into place.”  

To help test that the solution would work, Max also used ABB’s RobotStudio offline programming tool. Used by ABB’s customers across a wide variety of industries, RobotStudio enables virtual models of complete robotic installations to be created, tested and refined in a virtual environment to ensure they will work in a real-life production scenario.  

“ABB’s RobotStudio software was also very useful in helping to create the final program needed to instruct the robot,” adds Max. “With help from Benoit Gerber at ABB, and by watching the range of YouTube tutorials that are available for single-arm YuMi and RobotStudio, I was able to learn how to use the software to find ways to maximise the performance of the robot and ensure that it would dis-assemble the shoe in the right way.” 

The next step 

The exciting potential of the RUEI_01 concept has already been recognised. As well as winning ECAL’s BCV Award and the Eyes on Talent Award, RUEI_01 also achieved a national runners-up position in the prestigious James Dyson Award, an international design competition created to celebrate, encourage and inspire the next generation of design engineers. In addition, Max was also invited to be a speaker at the 2021 Dutch Design Week, explaining how the RUEI_01 concept could help to shape the future of manufacturing. 

In the long-term, Max would like to see his idea being incorporated into the manufacturing processes of the world’s leading sports shoe brands. 

“Every year, 23 billion pair of shoes are made worldwide, with around 300 million being thrown away in the same period,” concludes Max. “Ideas such as the RUEI_01 concept could make a massive contribution to reducing the amount of waste that this produces, helping manufacturers to improve their sustainability and providing a ready supply of high-quality material that they could reuse to manufacture future products.” 

Teaching students to make a sustainable difference  The RUEI_01 project is just one of several examples of where ABB robots are being used to help students to understand the potential that robotic automation can offer, with applications in everything from engineering and manufacturing through to architecture and product design. By equipping young people with the skills and experience needed to program and operate robots, ABB aims to create the employment opportunities of the future whilst minimizing environmental impact through greater levels of efficiency and productivity.   For more information, visit www.abb.com/robotics.  

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