Manufacturing AUTOMATION

Cable combat: Plastic vs steel cable carriers

January 21, 2011
By igus

An interview with Joe Ciringione, Product Manager, igus North America

How has cable carrier use evolved in terms of steel versus plastic cable carriers?

Joe Ciringione: The first cable carriers were made from steel, so the assumption is that the older the technology, the better it is. However, nowadays plastic cable carriers can achieve almost anything steel can. Made from a blend of high-performance polymers, they offer lower cost, reduced weight and are corrosion resistant. They can easily withstand demanding environmental conditions.

Plastic cable carriers have replaced steel on most types of automated machinery in recent years. This is because plastic cable carriers are lighter weight and, therefore, enable a higher number of cycles, faster speeds and an increase in production throughput. The cost advantage is another reason for the use of plastic cable carriers in this area.

Steel cable carriers still dominate in some applications and industries, such as on boom trucks and the metalworking and mining industries. This is not to say that plastic cable carriers cannot be used in applications in these environments; but rather that these industries have simply been slower to change.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of each?


JC: Plastic cable carriers are typically superior to steel in that they are low cost, lightweight and corrosion proof. Steel chains typically have a special coating applied to them to make them corrosion resistant. Alternatively, a stainless steel cable carrier can be used to eliminate corrosion issues; however, these can be very expensive. Plastic already offers a price advantage over steel cable carriers, and this advantage is even greater when compared with stainless-steel chains.

Another plus for plastic cable carriers is that they are modular; you only need a screwdriver to take them apart. Steel cable carriers, on the other hand, require wrenches and toolkits for disassembly, and are not as easy to take apart and replace. A plastic cable carrier link can easily be replaced if it becomes damaged or broken.

Plastic cable carriers can also glide on themselves in long-travel applications, whereas a steel cable carrier cannot. The latter requires elaborate support systems to support the upper run over longer distances.

Can you give examples of a plastic cable carrier being used in a demanding environment?

JC: Plastic cable carriers can be used in offshore applications such as oil rigs, as well as brick plants, coal-burning power plants, road construction vehicles, refuse incineration plants, tunnel drilling machines, steel mills, waste handling, mining and more. They can handle heavy loads, high speeds and long distances.

Last year, igus held a worldwide competition to recognize innovative and challenging plastic cable carrier applications. The Gold prize went to the longest travel ever reached with plastic cable carriers in the world. The over 2,017-foot travel application is mounted on a coal excavator’s conveyor unit. Heavy-duty cable carriers with rollers in the side traverse this distance inside a guide trough. As a result of implementing this system, downtimes caused by cable breakage have been reduced to zero.

Previously, the longest distance application in igus’ records was on two ship-unloading cranes at a coal power plant. Plastic cable carriers were used over 1,447 feet of travel to supply energy and data to the crane trolleys and cabins. The cranes unload up to 1,500 tons of coal per hour at docking stations on a man-made island situated roughly a mile offshore.

Another entrant into the igus competition was a plastic cable carrier application on a 45-ton furnace; designed to melt iron and travel back and forth over 72 feet. When the iron from the furnace is cast at temperatures of 3,002 degrees Fahrenheit, metal splashes could potentially damage unprotected system parts and lead to system failure. The plastic cable carrier used was made from a specially developed igus material with self-extinguishing properties to guarantee problem-free operation. 

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