Not only are there 800 pounds of it in every new car and more of it is being used to build the Boeing Dreamliner than any other component, it's now revolutionizing robotics' construction to provide a safer and more efficient work environment shared by automated technologies and their flesh and blood counterparts.
Plastics applications in industry are multiplying exponentially every day, and if they're not making sure contemporary automobiles average 54.5 miles per gallon or delivering Boeing its most fuel-efficient airliner ever, they're being absorbed into the latest in robotics and manufacturing innovation to improve the cost, safety and efficiency of production.
In fact, it is often plastics or plastic composites spearheading cutting-edge processes and technology.
Arnold Kravitz, chief technology officer at the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing in Pittsburgh, says "plastics are being adopted into robots because their pliability, elasticity and stiction."
The unique properties allow enhanced manipulating, surface sensing, collision-consequence's (reduced inertia) and over-squeeze damage protection features, he said. Designers can now develop effector manipulators with handlike qualities including damage-reducing softness, anti-slip gripping surfaces and even crush reducing pressure sensing.
More than 135,000 robots were shipped to U.S. customers from 2010 to 2016, making it the most in any seven-year period during the nation's robotics history. And recently, BMW bought 5,000 collaborative robots for their production lines.
But the benefits work both ways.
Right now, plastics manufacturers are automating their processes to make headway in the global market, and whether plastics applications are being added to robot construction or robots are producing plastics at a more proficient rate than traditional methods, the material is beginning to surface as the central component in all of manufacturing.
Because of the material's growing use in the space and its increasing value to robotics construction, Clemson assistant professor Yunyi Jia, Ph.D., said, "Robots are coming out of their cages to work alongside humans."
Traditional industrial robotics were isolated in "caged spaces" and used for dull, dirty and dangerous work, he said. The age of collaborative robots is emerging, and compared to metal exteriors, plastics are relatively "soft" to absorb when collisions occur.
Although OSHA holds no specific standards for the robotics industry, the organization has proposed a set of guidelines for robotics safety featuring everything from Emergency Robot Braking and Audible and Visible Warning Systems, to Presence Sensing Devices and a complete array of other safety systems. Moreover, the use of plastic surfaces helps designers and integrators comply with OSHA workplace safety requirements
As robotics in the industrial workspace becomes the status quo and their human co-workers learn to work in unison alongside, the large OEMs and their slew of suppliers are seeing bottom-line benefits as well.
Depending on the application, innovation in plastics and composite technology has created a unique scenario where these materials can be more cost-effective than metals. Due to advances in plastics, even industrial robots, once made of heavier metals, are now extremely cost-effective because of lightweight plastic and aluminum designs.
In the modern manufacturing facility, a seamless efficiency throughout the sum of operations is essential to maintain market positioning and supply chain reliability, and in terms of material and machining costs, safety and production in robot construction and execution, plastics are not only the more profitable pick; they are quickly becoming the only choice.