Polyurethane consists of multiple urethane links and can be manufactured to display a wide range of characteristics, from extraordinarily flexible to highly rigid. Flexible and soft polyurethane can be found in household items, including upholstery, bedding, and even shoe inserts. In the automotive industry, polyurethane foam serves as internal insulation for sound systems and dashboards, while rigid polyurethane comprises structural vehicular components.
The applications of polyurethane are vast, with different forms of polyurethane dominating particular industries. Industry aside, however, polyurethane foam comprised around 75 percent of polyurethane consumed globally in 2004, with the remaining sector split evenly between rigid and flexible polyurethane components. By 2007, approximately 12 million metric tons of raw polyurethane material was consumed globally.
In the US in 2004, approximately 5, 444 million pounds of polyurethane were consumed by end-use markets. Of this number the top industrial consumers were building and construction, which accounted for 26.8 percent, and transportation, which accounted for 23.8 percent. Furniture and bedding comprised about 21 percent of polyurethane consumption. The lowest industrial consumers of polyurethane were electronics, at 1.4 percent, and footwear, at 0.7 percent. The packaging industry fell in the middle, consuming 4.6 percent, while textiles, fibers, and apparel consumed slightly less, around 3.3 percent—the same amount consumed by machinery and foundry. About ten percent of polyurethane consumed in 2004 by end-use markets was miscellaneous.
The building and construction industry was the highest consumer of polyurethane in 2004 mainly because of its dependence on foam-based insulation. By 2007, however, the demand for foam based insulation decreased in response to higher oil prices.