Recycling: Automating the sorting and separation of e-waste.

We need to think about demanufacturing and recycling of electric bikes

Electric bike sales have been soaring since 2017, with double digit growth and a total sale of 1.2 million units in the three main markets alone – Germany, France and the Netherlands. Hence, it comes as no surprise that the e-bike motor market is projected to reach a total value of 8.5 billion USD by 2025 growing at about 6% yearly. Although the sector has reached a degree of technological maturity, limited thought has gone into the processing of end-of-life electric bikes.

Demanufacturing and recovery of the embedded raw materials such as copper, gold, silver, lithium and cobalt from the three e-bike sub-systems – battery, electric motor and control unit – could address some of the issues the electric bike parts suppliers are facing:

  • How to hedge against raw material price fluctuations?
  • How to ensure access to needed raw materials?
  • How to create unique USP’s in an increasingly commoditised market? 

However, until recently, demanufacturing and material recovery has relied heavily on manual labour, and as such is not economically viable in the developed world. Intelligent robotic disassembly lines can resolve these issues.

Is demanufacturing viable? Apple thinks so

Consumer electronics giant Apple has already invested into automated demanufacturing of their iPhones. The first-generation robotic system, Liam, has been able to break one iPhone 6 every 11 seconds into eight distinct waste fractions. This is not only economically viable but also enables the recovery of valuable materials that traditional recyclers could not recover. Daisy – the latest version of the post-processing robot is able to deal with an even greater variety of phones. Thus, the system can break apart up to nine different iPhone models, and up to 200 iPhones per hour. Recovering those embedded critical materials significantly reduces resource dependencies while ensuring product sustainability.

The key cornerstone in the logistics chain is, however, reverse vending. Similar to the smart phone industry, electric bike vendors offer incentives such as trade-in schemes to ensure regulatory compliance. This enables a continuous stream of incoming electronic waste items to be exploited.

Could the electric bike be the next fully recycled item?

We have investigated how recent technologies such as machine vision, machine learning and augmented reality could impact the waste processing industry. If you would like to learn more read our whitepaper Recycling: Automating the sorting and separation of e-waste.

Dr Felix Hellwig
Felix is a senior project engineer interested in how disruptive technologies can create new value chains for our clients.