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Working for more sustainability
The shift toward a more resource-efficient way of living and working is one of the urgent tasks of our time – and a challenge. Modern technologies and automation are supporting this mammoth task worldwide. Here we show how this can look in concrete terms.
August 24, 2022
Reading Time: 3 min.
The circular economy plays an important role in achieving greater sustainability. Existing materials and products are shared, leased, repaired or recycled for as long as possible. In this way, the life cycle of products is extended. The recycling of consumer electronics in particular plays an important role in the circular economy.
Robots in action against electronic waste
However, recycling e-waste can be harmful to human health. Gases such as mercury or sharp-edged parts, for example, make it dangerous for humans to dismantle screens and monitors with LCD technology – an ideal field of application for robotics and automation. The Irish technology company Votechnik, for example, has developed a system with a KUKA robot that overcomes these challenges. By extracting hazardous gases and removing sharp-edged elements such as fluorescent tubes and screens, the cell eliminates hazards to humans and tackles the growth of e-waste mountains.
Recycling e-car batteries – an important future field
New powertrains are essential for clean, sustainable mobility. The end of the combustion engine is approaching, more and more car manufacturers want to stop offering combustion engines in the future, including industry giants such as Audi, Volkswagen and Toyota. The European Commission also wants to introduce a ban on new cars with internal combustion engines. Electric drives are an important replacement technology – but what happens to the batteries at the end of their useful life?
To implement sustainable concepts for batteries at their "end of life", all players along the value chain – from material extraction to battery production to the use phase – would have to address the issue, experts say. "The required automation of battery disassembly and the recovery of recyclable materials will generate new know-how and, in the end, new business areas," says Dr. Joachim Döhner, chairman of VDMA association's Battery Production department and KUKA senior director of Global Sales Battery. With more and more e-vehicles on the roads, the need for recycling will also increase – and even a new market segment for automation will emerge, he adds.
This is because battery disassembly is anything but unproblematic. While the risk is manageable for new vehicles, an old, used e-car brings risks such as toxic fumes or possible damage to the battery from accidents. Automation and robotics can be used here to protect people from these hazards.
More resource-efficient production
And new technologies themselves can also contribute to the circular economy. "We need to make automation solutions as durable as possible to save valuable resources. There is still a lot of potential for this, especially in Europe," says Dr. Döhner.
In addition to the already long-life cycle of robots, KUKA, for example, offers disposal or recycling of used robots. And the steel or aluminum used by KUKA generally has a high recycling content. This conserves valuable resources - and also makes economic sense. Used robots expand the KUKA range, and this offer is well received. For example, used machines offer smaller companies a good and inexpensive entry into automation. And other customers want to reuse tried and tested equipment in a large system.
New generations of robots, in turn, consume significantly less energy than previous generations. This improved energy efficiency is also becoming increasingly important for customers – with a view to sustainability, but also to cost-effectiveness. After all, it is no longer just the purchase price that is a decisive factor, but increasingly also the operating costs of a product. With rising electricity and CO2 prices, energy-efficient, resource-conserving robots make a big difference over the years of operation, especially in more energy-intensive production areas – and offer customers potential savings. Climate protection and cost-effectiveness therefore go hand in hand here.
Equipping young talents for the future, getting them excited about STEM subjects and introducing them to new technologies is a mammoth project. At KUKA, we are working on this in various places and are in close contact with educational institutions and politicians to enable the younger generation to get to grips with new technologies.