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Robots, recycling and Industry 4.0



Print and technology specialist Brother is pioneering the use of automation as it embraces the principles of ‘Industry 4.0’ by adding robots to its Recycling Technology Centres (RTCs) in Europe and America.

Robots have been introduced at its RTCs in the UK, Slovakia and in the States to automate the recycling process, expanding Brother’s capabilities and conserving more of the planet’s resources through ‘home grown’ mechatronic innovation.

Recycling for the environnement

As an environmental pioneer, Brother has been recycling used laser print supplies since 2004 and in Europe has recycled over 15 million toner cartridges avoiding 13,500 tonnes of materials going to landfill.

Through its free postal and bulk collection box programmes customers from across Europe are encouraged to send empty toner cartridges back to Brother, so that durable components can be remanufactured in new cartridges after careful inspection and cleaning.

Parts that cannot be remanufactured can be recycled, which sees the material granulated and used in other products such as garden furniture and flower pots – giving raw materials a new lease of life.

Efforts to expand the recycling and reuse capability of toner cartridges has seen Brother develop automated robotic production lines, which clean, inspect, adjust and replace components from customers’ returned cartridges.

Innovation and automisation

This innovation in recycling capability, and significant nod to the principle of Industry 4.0, began at the Brother Industries UK RTC in 2012. It started with the creation of an Automation Department with its Mechanical, Production and Electronics Engineers collaborating with Product Design Engineers from Brother’s headquarters in Japan.

Phil Mack, Director at Brother Industries UK, said: “From the outset Brother believed it was essential to invest in its capability to design and manufacture its own automation and robotics technologies, rather than outsourcing.

“Not only was this to control costs but the challenge of disassembly of small components like screws and gears covered in grease presented opportunities to develop unique ‘in-house’ knowledge.

“3D computer-aided design and electrical design software was used to design the automation production lines. In turn, metal and plastic components were machined in-house. Meanwhile the programming of robots and the mechatronics is carried out by our team of highly skilled engineers.”

Now in the 6th year of its automation plan, the BIUK team has automated production lines in its recycling factories in the UK, Slovakia and US.

Graduate Robotics and Design Engineers have been recruited to support further growth and take forward development into new areas. The team includes Linda Litwach, who moved from Paris to join BIUK in 2017 after completing her MSC in Robotics Engineering.

Linda said: “I am really enjoying working collaboratively with engineers from across the world to design automated production lines to help expand the recycling capability of Brother and to help protect the planet’s natural resources.”

The team at BIUK are next set to focus their attentions on collaborative robots and Artificial Intelligence to continue to reduce costs and keep the brand’s recycling capabilities at the leading edge of sustainability.