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Conceptual design of a basic linear actuator. Note that in this example the lead screw (gray) rotates while the lead nut (yellow) and tube (red) do not.
A linear actuator is an actuator that, when driven by a non-linear motion, creates linear motion (as opposed to rotary motion, e.g. of an electric motor). Mechanical and hydraulic actuation are the most common methods of achieving the linear motion.
A mechanical linear actuator with digital readout.
Mechanical linear actuators operate by conversion of rotary motion into linear motion. Conversion is commonly made via a few simple types of mechanism:
Screw: Screw jack, ball screw and roller screw actuators all operate on the principle of the simple machine known as the screw. By rotating the actuator's nut, the screw shaft moves in a line.
Wheel and axle: Hoist, winch, rack and pinion, chain drive, belt drive, rigid chain and rigid belt actuators operate on the principle of the wheel and axle. By rotating a wheel/axle (e.g. drum, gear, pulley or shaft) a linear member (e.g. cable, rack, chain or belt) moves.
Cam: Cam actuators function on a principle similar to that of the wedge, but provide relatively limited travel. As a wheel-like cam rotates, its eccentric shape provides thrust at the base of a shaft.
Some mechanical linear actuators only pull (e.g. hoist, chain drive and belt drive) and others only push (e.g. cam actuator).
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. 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.
 Pneumatic actuators
Pneumatic actuators, or pneumatic cylinders, are similar to hydraulic actuators except they use compressed gas to provide pressure instead of a liquid.
 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
A miniature electro-mechanical linear actuator where the lead nut is part of the motor. The lead screw does not rotate, so as the lead nut is rotated by the motor, the lead screw is extended or retracted.
Typical compact cylindrical linear electric actuator
Typical linear or rotary + linear electric actuator
Moving coil linear, rotary and linear + rotary actuators at work in various applications
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.
 Simplified 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 or ball 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, accuracy, and lifetime.
There are many types of motors that can be used in a linear actuator system. These include dc brush, dc brushless, stepper, or in some cases, even induction motors. It all depends on the application requirements and the loads the actuator is designed to move. For example, a linear actuator using an integral horsepower AC induction motor driving a lead screw can be used to actuate a large valve in a refinery. In this case, accuracy and move resolution down to a thousandth isn't needed, but high force and speed is. For electromechanical linear actuators used in laboratory instrumentation robotics, optical and laser equipment, or X-Y tables, fine resolution into the micron region and high accuracy may require the use of a fractional horsepower stepper motor linear actuator with a fine pitch lead screw. There are many variations in the electromechanical linear actuator system. It's critical to understand the design requirements and application constraints to know which one would be best.
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 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.
 Telescoping linear actuator
Telescoping linear actuators are specialized linear actuators used where space restrictions or other requirements require. Their range of motion is many times greater than the unextended length of the actuating member.
A common form is made of concentric tubes of approximately equal length that extend and retract like sleeves, one inside the other, such as the telescopic cylinder.
Other more specialized telescoping actuators use actuating members that act as rigid linear shafts when extended, but break that line by folding, separating into pieces and/or uncoiling when retracted. Examples of telescoping linear actuators include:
Helical band actuator
Rigid belt actuator
Rigid chain actuator
 Advantages and disadvantages
||Cheap. Repeatable. No power source required. Self contained. Identical behaviour extending or retracting.
||Manual operation only. No automation.
||Cheap. Repeatable. Operation can be automated. Self-contained. Identical behaviour extending or retracting. DC or stepping motors. Position feedback possible.
||Many moving parts prone to wear.
||Simple design. Minimum of moving parts. High speeds possible. Self-contained. Identical behaviour extending or retracting.
||Very small motions possible.
||Requires position feedback to be repeatable. Short travel. Low speed. High voltages required. Expensive. Good in compression only, not in tension.
||Very high forces possible.
||Can leak. Requires position feedback for repeatability. External hydraulic pump required. Some designs good in compression only.
||Not as reliable as other methods.
||Very compact. Range of motion greater than length of actuator.
||Both linear and rotary motion.
||Force, position and speed are controllable and repeatable. Capable of high speeds and precise positioning. Linear, rotary, and linear + rotary actions possible.
||Requires position feedback to be repeatable.
|MICA (moving iron controllable actuator)
||High force and controllable. Higher force and less losses than moving coils . Losses easy to dissipate. Electronic driver easy to design and set up.
||Stroke limited to several mi