If you’ve ever broken an iPhone screen, dealt with a drained-of-life iPhone battery or unsuccessfully tried to rescue an iPhone from ocean water, the gigantic pile of dead devices might feel a little haunting.
They sit in a rose gold, space gray, white, jet black pile, dozens and dozens of them, deader than dead. Then, one by one, they are rolled up a conveyor belt to meet their final destroyer, a robot named Daisy.
Daisy is 33 feet of automation, the second generation of an Apple Inc. R&D project that went live in Austin on Thursday. Daisy is made up of five robots that pry apart, shake, slam and punch iPhone 5 to iPhone 7 models in order to separate the insides of each end-of-life device and to reclaim aluminum, copper and other elements to create new devices.
Daisy, the culmination of five years of research, is a descendant of Liam, which was introduced in March 2016. Liam was three times bigger, about 100 feet long, with 29 robots instead of five. Robots of Liam have been re-purposed for Daisy, which you could view as a sort of auto-cannibalism, or in keeping with the disassembly’s mission of re-use and recycling.
The Daisy project, housed in a secret Austin Apple operations site, is the only machine of its kind in the world. A second Daisy will go online sometime soon in Breda, Netherlands. Lisa Jackson, Apple’s vice president of environment, policy and social initiatives, said Daisy is important in that she’s a step toward the company making new products entirely from old ones, what it’s been calling a “Closed-loop supply chain.”
“What we’ve learned is that the technology for recycling hasn’t really advanced much,” Jackson said in an interview Monday at the Austin facility where Daisy lives. “(Daisy) is one of the ways that we’re going to make real progress in our goal to mine less from the Earth and use more recycled and renewable materials in-product. Daisy is the beginning of that investment. Daisy is a crucial link in disassembly and disassembly is a crucial link in recycling.”
Jackson said that the plan is to bring Daisy online in about 10 locations over the next year, particularly in places where iPhones come and go, Apple’s large distribution centers.
A few days ahead of April 22, Earth Day, Apple is also announcing a revamped trade-in and recycling program, “GiveBack,” which will streamline the process customers online and in Apple Stores go through to get rid of old Apple products. The effort began Thursday in the U.S., China and the U.K. and through the end of April will include donations to Conservation International.
Jackson said the process for people to get rid of old gadgets has been more cumbersome than it has to be. “It required a customer to deal with vendors rather than Apple,” she said. “We wanted to keep that experience simple and elegant and easy, and maybe even a little bit enjoyable.”
Part of the GiveBack program’s goal is to feed Daisy. Jackson said the company wants as many phones as possible to reclaim materials such as specific grades of aluminum that the company uses in its phone housings. With traditional shred recycling, that aluminum will get down-cycled to its lowest common denominator instead of more premium aluminum grades the company needs.
When Daisy is done destroying her line of iPhones, the higher grades of aluminum are ready to go straight to a smelter and come back in a form the company can use.
Watching the path of destruction can be mesmerizing. On a brief tour Monday, it was impossible to look away from the way Daisy slammed phones and blasted cold air to safely remove battery parts, or punched holes to get rid of titanium housings and screws. Daisy does tricks such as auto-sorting a pile of phones based on their size and inside components and doesn’t need to be re-tooled to accommodate a variety of different kinds and sizes of iPhones (as long as they aren’t the iPhone 5C, which had a plastic back) from the iPhone 5 to 7 generations.
The result of the destruction can be a little messy; sometimes tiny components such as cameras or receivers end up on the floor of the machine to be picked up by three human operators who work the line. But most of it goes into big, neat piles -- all those broken screens, all those punched-out aluminum backs (even the iPhone logo must be punched out; it’s not made of aluminum), all those logic boards, all those individually bagged batteries.
Daisy can take apart 200 iPhones per hour, fewer than Liam, but she can handle a much larger variety of devices at a time; Liam only worked with Apple’s iPhone 6.
Jackson declined to say why Austin, where Apple has more than 6,000 employees, specifically was chosen for Daisy’s debut. But she hinted that it has to do with the company’s future plans in the areas of reclaiming materials and reusing them.
She said that she hopes people who have old, dead devices in junk drawers will send them back to Apple. “You’d be doing great for the planet as well as decluttering a bit,” she said.