Linear actuator

Linear actuator

__TOC__A linear actuator is a device that develops force and motion, from an available energy source, in a linear manner, as opposed to rotationally like an electric motor. There are various methods of achieving this linear motion. Several different examples are listed below.

Types of Linear Actuators

Mechanical actuators

Mechanical actuators typically convert rotary motion of a control knob or handle into linear displacement via screws and/or gears to which the knob or handle is attached. A jackscrew or car jack is a familiar mechanical actuator. Another family of actuators are based on the segmented spindle. Rotation of the jack handle is converted mechanically into the linear motion of the jack head. Mechanical actuators are also frequently used in the field of lasers and optics to manipulate the position of linear stages, rotary stages, mirror mounts, goniometers and other positioning instruments. For accurate and repeatable positioning, index marks may be used on control knobs. Some actuators even include an encoder and digital position readout. [ [ Teach ICT - GCSE ICT computer control ] ] These are similar to the adjustment knobs used on micrometers except that their purpose is position adjustment rather than position measurement.

Hydraulic actuators

Hydraulic actuators or hydraulic cylinders typically involve a hollow cylinder having a piston inserted in it. The two sides of the piston are alternately pressurized/de-pressurized to achieve controlled precise linear displacement of the piston and in turn the entity connected to the piston. The physical linear displacement is only along the axis of the piston/cylinder. This design is based on the principles of hydraulics. A familiar example of a manually operated hydraulic actuator is a hydraulic car jack. Typically though, the term "hydraulic actuator" refers to a device controlled by a hydraulic pump.

Piezoelectric actuators

The piezoelectric effect is a property of certain materials in which application of a voltage to the material causes it to expand. Very high voltages correspond to only tiny expansions. As a result, piezoelectric actuators can achieve extremely fine positioning resolution, but also have a very short range of motion. In addition, piezoelectric materials exhibit hysteresis which makes it difficult to control their expansion in a repeatable manner.

Electro-mechanical actuators

Electro-mechanical actuators are similar to mechanical actuators except that the control knob or handle is replaced with an electric motor. Rotary motion of the motor is converted to linear displacement of the actuator. There are many designs of modern linear actuators and every company that manufactures them tends to have their own proprietary method. The following is a generalized description of a very simple electro-mechanical linear actuator.

implified Design

Typically, a rotary driver (e.g. electric motor) is mechanically connected to a lead screw so that the rotation of the electric motor will make the lead screw rotate. A lead screw has a continuous helical thread machined on its circumference running along the length (similar to the thread on a bolt). Threaded onto the lead screw is a lead nut with corresponding helical threads. The nut is prevented from rotating with the lead screw (typically the nut interlocks with a non-rotating part of the actuator body). Therefore, when the lead screw is rotated, the nut will be driven along the threads. The direction of motion of the nut will depend on the direction of rotation of the lead screw. By connecting linkages to the nut, the motion can be converted to usable linear displacement. Most current actuators are built either for high speed, high force, or a compromise between the two. When considering an actuator for a particular application, the most important specifications are typically travel, speed, force, and lifetime.


In the majority of linear actuator designs, the basic principle of operation is that of an inclined plane. The threads of a lead screw act as a continuous ramp that allows a small rotational force to be used over a long distance to accomplish movement of a large load over a short distance.


Many variations on the basic design have been created. Most focus on providing general improvements such as a higher mechanical efficiency, speed, or load capacity. There is also a large engineering movement towards actuator miniaturization.

Most electro-mechanical designs incorporate a lead screw and lead nut. Some use a ball screw and ball nut. In either case the screw may be connected to a motor or manual control knob either directly or through a series of gears. Gears are typically used to allow a smaller (and weaker) motor spinning at a higher rpm to be geared down to provide the torque necessary to spin the screw under a heavier load than the motor would otherwise be capable of driving directly. Effectively this sacrifices actuator speed in favor of increased actuator thrust. In some applications the use of worm gear is common as this allow a smaller built in dimension still allowing great travel length.

Some lead screws have multiple "starts". This means that they have multiple threads alternating on the same shaft. One way of visualizing this is in comparison to the multiple color stripes on a candy cane. This allows for more adjustment between thread pitch and nut/screw thread contact area, which determines the extension speed and load carrying capacity (of the threads), respectively.

Linear motors

A linear motor is essentially a rotary electric motor laid down on flat surface. Since the motor moves in a linear fashion to begin with, no lead screw is needed to convert rotary motion to linear. While high capacity is possible, the material and/or motor limitations on most designs are surpassed relatively quickly. Most linear motors have a relatively low load capacity compared to other types of linear actuators.

Wax motors

A wax motor typically uses an electric current to heat a block of wax causing it to expand. A plunger that bears on the wax is thus forced to move in a linear fashion.

egmented spindles

Segmented actuators consist of discrete chain elements which are interlinked to form a rod (the technology is known as the segmented spindle) thus making the actuator extremely compact.

Advantages and Disadvantages

Actuator TypeAdvantagesDisadvantages
MechanicalCheap. Repeatable. No power source required. Self contained. Identical behaviour extending or retracting.Manual operation only. No automation.
Electro-mechanicalCheap. Repeatable. Operation can be automated. Self contained. Identical behaviour extending or retracting.Many moving parts prone to wear.
Linear motorSimple design. Minimum of moving parts. High speeds possible. Self contained. Identical behaviour extending or retracting.Relatively low force.
PiezoelectricVery small motions possible.Requires position feedback to be repeatable. Short travel. Low speed. High voltages required. Expensive. Good in compression only. Not good in tension.
HydraulicVery high forces possible.Can leak. Requires position feedback for repeatability. External hydraulics pump required. Some designs good in compression only.
Wax motorSmooth operation.Not as reliable as other methods.
Segmented spindleVery compact. Range of motion greater than length of actuator.Both linear and rotary motion.
Moving coilForce, position and speed are programmable and repeatable. Capable of high speeds and precise positioning. Linear, rotary, and linear + rotary actions possible.Requires position feedback to be repeatable.

ee also

* Linear motor
* Wax motor


External links

* [ Engineeringtalk]
* [ Leo Dorst's Lego linear actuator]
* [ The principle of the KATAKA segmented spindle Linear Actuator]
* [ Electric Linear Actuators from LINAK]
* [ Linear Electromechanical Actuators based on the Segmented Spindle]
* [ Linear Actuators from ARTEKTRON]
* [ Moving coil linear and rotary technology - SMAC]

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