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The Entrepreneur's Guide to Computer Recycling: Basics for starting up a computer recycling business in emerging markets
PC Recycling Guide
Refurbishment

In a recycling centre, the refurbishment activity is the most important in terms of income and added value.

Cleaning

It is important to carefully clean the pieces of equipment, first to be able to present clean equipment to potential clients, but also to prevent damage while the pieces are being tested. Indeed, when used, transported and stored, the equipment collects dust which must be removed before testing, as it may cause short-circuits or malfunctions possibly resulting in the destruction of components as soon as the equipment is switched on. The entrepreneur will also have to make sure that the plastic cases are cleaned before being shown to clients.

Cleaning methods

As it is impossible to use a dust cloth because of the numerous slots, pins and corners, it is recommended to resort to compressed air to remove dust. An electrically powered handheld blower generally delivers enough compressed air to blow dust out of circuit boards and other components. It is also highly recommended to set up a station specially devoted to this operation, equipped with a dust extractor. This enables the employee to work in better conditions, and also prevents dust from spreading to the rest of the workshop. This workstation should be closed on its three main sides, and equipped with an air blow gun and an aspirating hood running continuously. To remove stains, glue traces and encrusted dust from the plastic cases, it is possible to use a cloth moistened with water.

When using chemicals, workers must follow safety instructions and wear equipment to protect their hands and respiratory system. The disposal of cleaning products must also be monitored, as they must not be discharged with waste water.

Health and safety

It is highly recommended to isolate the cleaning area from the workshop, so that technicians cannot be bothered by dust, and equipment in the process of being repaired cannot be damaged. It is also recommended not to use solvent during this operation to protect worker health, as water is usually enough to clean properly.

Testing

Testing is one of the main stages of the refurbishment activity, as it is at this point that the decision is made whether to reuse the computer as it is, to refurbish it or to dismantle it. Tests are generally focused on the condition of the hard drive, the screen, the motherboard and the RAM.

Computer testing

Before opening the computer and individually testing its parts, the technician must try to switch the computer on. If it starts, the technician will be able to run tests directly on the machine to assess the condition and capacity of the various components. To test components such as the motherboard or the RAM, the technician will often have to use programmes specific to the brand of these components. For this reason, the entrepreneur is advised to provide his company with a programme library, where technicians can quickly find the appropriate software.

If the equipment does not work, it is important to determine if it would be worthwhile repairing it or using it for spare parts. If it is the type of equipment often asked for by clients, its subsets should be tested either to identify the failure or to extract spare parts.

Hard drive testing

It is recommended to set up a workstation devoted to hard drive testing, equipped with a computer in perfect working order. To assess the condition of hard drives (up to four at the same time), the technician must connect them to the available IDE connectors. Once connected, the technician uses specific software to test hard drives and repair them if need be. Once a hard drive has been tested, it is either sent for dismantling (if it is faulty), or stored to be used later as a spare part.

RAM testing

It is usually recommended to test the RAM modules on their original motherboard, due to important risks of incompatibility between the different models. The module testing process is similar to that implemented for hard drives. It requires the use of a functioning computer, equipped with a motherboard compatible with the modules to be tested. The technician must install these modules in the computer, switch it on and run tests thanks to the appropriate software. If the RAM modules are faulty, they are sent for dismantling. If they are fit for reuse, they are stored once their characteristics have been carefully registered.

Monitor testing

Contrary to the other components testings, monitor testing is based only on the tester’s own assessment. His job is to evaluate the quality, the brightness and the contrast of the monitors. He must also detect potential problems, such as image distortion. Therefore, the technician in charge of these tests must have a lot of experience. He may use a working computer as a point of reference.

If the monitor is in good working order, it is stored, waiting to be resold. If the case is damaged, it is sent for repair. Finally, if the monitor is out of order, it is sent for dismantling. The technician may sever the cables of faulty monitors, so that they cannot be mixed up with monitors in working order or those waiting to be tested.

Traceability

Once a piece of equipment has been tested, its track sheet must be updated, indicating its condition, the possible repairs and the name of the technician who carried them out, and lastly its next destination (i.e. the refurbishment workshop, the dismantling workshop or the sales area). If the equipment is broken up into spare parts, it is recommended to create a track sheet for these parts.

Data security

When equipment is collected, the owner may want the data which is written on the hard drives to be disposed of. This operation can be carried out either on the collection site or on the recycling site. Even if the owner does not specifically request the data disposal, in numerous countries, the recycling centre is legally obliged to do it, in compliance with regulations on private and intellectual property. The company may communicate about the reliability of its data disposal methods, to reassure the equipment suppliers.

To remove data from a computer, the recycling centre carries out several hard drive formattings, either at the hard drive test bench, or directly on the computer. There are various software programmes on the market enabling the retrieval of data erased from the computer by the user or during the formatting. Therefore, the recycling centre must be equipped with efficient data disposal and formatting tools, and must repeat the operation several times on each hard drive to make sure that no trace of former information remains on the hard drive. There are several data disposal software products available on the market, among which the free software Root Boot, under Linux.

If hard drives are pierced to secure the data disposal, this operation should be carried out under an aspirator, as the smoke resulting from it may contain harmful substances.

Assembling

Choosing a hardware configuration

Before assembling a computer, the technician must choose the configuration to give to the computer. Once this is done, he can decide which pieces are going to make up the computer so that its performance can be sufficient to run the operating system and the required applications.

The hardware configuration depends on the future use of the computer and on the operating system installed in it. Therefore, the clients’ needs should be carefully examined beforehand, in order to identify the appropriate technical configurations for the equipment.

There are two types of configuration: stand-alone computers and thin client. Stand-alone computers require a hard drive big enough to host the operating system and the applications files. They may also include a network interface card, to access the Internet or be connected to the network they are intended to be a part of. Thin client computers have neither hard drives nor operating systems, and require very little RAM. Nevertheless, they include a network interface card, enabling them to be connected to a central server on which the operating system and several software programmes are installed. The thin client configuration allows the use of relatively old equipment that would not have been fit to be refurbished as standalone computers. A network equipped with a powerful central server (2 Ghz) can use about twenty thin clients.

Assembling the central unit

To assemble a central unit, the technician first puts in the motherboard, the processor and the RAM. Then he installs the expansion boards, the drives and the peripherals (e.g. various optical drives). Several guides or websites give more detailed information on this process. It is recommended to start with the original configuration in which defective components are replaced. The risks of incompatibility between brands or versions increase when the computer is made up of spare parts from different origins.

Installation

Once the computer has been assembled, a technician must carry out the installation of the operating system and of the drivers enabling the computer to communicate with its peripherals. Then, the technician has to install various software programmes, in order to make the computer fully operational. To save time, the entrepreneur may implement systems enabling these operations to be performed on several computers at a time.

Installing the operating system

The most popular operating systems are Microsoft Windows and Linux. For both, several versions exist. The installation of Linux is free, whereas the installation of Windows is subject to license fees. However, Microsoft has developed a free licensing programme and a low-cost licensing programme (MAR). This programme applies to computers destined for educational establishments and computers coming from refurbishment centres.

The main versions of these operating systems are:

  • Microsoft: Windows 98, 2000, XP, Vista;
  • Linux: Debian, Knoppix, Mandriva, Suze, Ubuntu, XUbuntu.

According to their editors, these operating systems require the following minimum configurations:

Examples of minimum hardware configurations

With these specifications, the operating system should run, but probably not as well as it could. For good visual effects and smooth running, it is advisable to improve these configurations.

The Microsoft Authorized Refurbisher Programme (MAR)

Recyclers can become members of the MAR community as long as they meet the criteria and conditions listed on Microsoft’s website. The MAR programme allows companies to use a wide variety of eligible software applications on computers of eligible beneficiaries. Windows 2000 OS can be installed on all computers participating in the programme. Windows XP is available for computers that were previously configured with Windows.

Throughout the programme, Microsoft provides the authorized refurbishment companies with technical support, specific certificates of authenticity (COA) and agreements with eligible beneficiaries. The MAR programme helps to reduce costs paid by the recycling company to license refurbished computers. It also allows eligible beneficiaries to obtain equipment at an affordable price. This programme enables technicians to install a variety of software applications with certificates of authenticity. For additional information on the MAR programme, see www.microsoft.com/mar.

Installing drivers and applications

Drivers are software applications thanks to which the operating system recognises and communicates with hardware components. They are specific to the hardware and depend on the manufacturer, the model and the operating system. They often have to be downloaded, usually from the manufacturer’s website. To avoid spending too much time, the entrepreneur must make sure that the company’s programme library contains the most frequently used drivers. The older the equipment and the operating system, the harder it is to find the appropriate driver.

The technician can also resort to CD-ROMs and Internet downloads to install software applications.

Simultaneous installations

To save time, the entrepreneur can implement methods of installing several computers simultaneously thanks to imaging software applications. These programmes copy the image of a computer (i.e. its exact contents) into one or several other computers at the same time, via the network or a CD-ROM. This way, the operating system, the drivers and the applications are copied directly into the new pieces of equipment. However, this method has one important limitation: the computers must be identical and equipped with the same components (motherboard, network interface card, video board, CD-ROM drive, floppy disk drive, etc.). This is another reason why the equipment collected must be as homogeneous as possible: it enables the recycling centre to save a lot of time during the installation stage.

Secondhand resale

When the equipment collected is in good condition and operational, it may be put back directly onto the market. Nevertheless, most pieces of equipment will have been refurbished prior to resale. It is also possible to sell refurbished spare parts.

Traceability

It is important for the recycling centre to be able to keep track of the equipment until its final destination. This is why a handover certificate must come with the equipment, to certify the transfer of ownership.

The centre may address a certificate to the initial owner, to let him know that the equipment has been refurbished and put back on the market.