What Are Linear Actuators?

In this article, we’re going to help you understand what are linear actuators and how linear actuators work. Linear actuators are complex pieces of technology that are used in thousands of applications across industries. Understanding how linear actuators work can help you choose how to integrate them into your product or projects.

What is a Linear Actuator?

A linear actuator is a device that is used for creating linear motion, in contrast to the rotary motion created by a standard electric motor. Linear actuators convert the rotary motion of an electric motor to linear motion, saving product designers the hassle of engineering a solution themselves. While actuators are complex devices, they simplify the task of creating reliable linear motion.

How Does a Linear Actuator Work?

Linear actuators are controlled through a variety of methods, typically involving electronic signals. Covering every possible control method is outside the scope of this article, but we will touch on the more common ones below.

  • DC Control. DC voltage is applied directly to the motor through a switch, relay, or other mechanism. Changing the polarity of the voltage supply allows the actuator to change direction.
  • Pulse Width Modulation (PWM). Switching a digital signal on and off produces the equivalent of an analog DC signal, which can command an actuator to move to a certain position. Varying the signal’s on-time vs. off-time (pulse width) will command the actuator to different positions. This is a common control method when using microcontrollers in embedded systems.
  • PLCs (Programmable Logic Controllers). PLCs are popular control systems in many fields, including industrial automation. They can drive linear actuators with a variety of control signals, including 4-20mA current loops.
  • Servo Control. Some actuators operate as direct plug and play replacements for standard rotary servos. This type of control is compatible with arduino as well as most hobbyist radio control systems.

Some linear actuators integrate feedback sensors, such as encoders or hall-effect sensors, which provide real-time information about the actuator's position, allowing for closed-loop control and enhanced accuracy.

Key Factors Influencing Actuator Performance

Linear actuator performance is influenced by several key factors. These include but are not necessarily limited to:

  • The design and quality of the components, such as gearboxes or lead screws. This can affect the smoothness of the motion and the overall precision of the device.
  • The choice of materials for guides and housing impacts durability and friction.
  • Feedback systems, like sensors and limit switches, play a role in accurate positioning and safety.
  • Voltage and current control mechanisms on the power source influence the actuator's speed, force, and responsiveness capabilities.
  • Environment conditions. Such factors as temperature, humidity, and load weight can impact an actuator's efficiency and longevity

Common Applications of Linear Actuators

Linear actuators are used across dozens of industries from common machines to unique systems used by NASA and other high-profile organizations, industries include:

  • Manufacturing
  • Automation
  • Food & Beverage
  • Product Testing
  • Hobbyist

Different Types of Linear Actuators Explained

  • Electric Linear Actuators: Screw, Belt, Linear Motor
  • Hydraulic and Pneumatic Linear Actuators
  • Mechanical Linear Actuators: Cam, Wheel, and Axle

Common Questions About Linear Actuators

Can a linear actuator be side loaded?

Generally, it is best to avoid side-loading a rod-style linear actuator. If you have an application where a side load can not be avoided, you have a couple of options. Mounting the load on a linear slide rail and then driving the rail with a rod actuator is one choice to avoid side loading. Another option, if your design permits, is to use a track actuator which is more tolerant of side-loading.

How to mount a linear actuator

Actuonix actuators are supplied with a free mounting kit that is compatible with the type of actuator that you have ordered.

What happens if a linear actuator is overloaded?

It is always advised to load a linear actuator in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendations. Overloading a linear actuator can result in overheating, slow or stalled movement, mechanical failure, and reduced actuator life.

Does a linear actuator have limit switches?

Some linear actuators have limit switches. If the actuator you intend to use does not come with limit switches and you would like to use the, an external limit switch kit can be used.

Future Outlook for Linear Actuator Technology

The future outlook for linear actuator applications is promising, driven by ongoing advancements in automation, robotics, and precision engineering. As industries continue to demand higher levels of accuracy, efficiency, and adaptability, linear actuators are poised to evolve accordingly. Smart actuators equipped with sensors and integrated electronics will become more commonplace, enabling real-time feedback, adaptive control, and predictive maintenance. This convergence of actuators with the Internet of Things (IoT) will lead to interconnected systems capable of self-optimization and remote monitoring, enhancing overall operational efficiency.

Additionally, developments in materials science will result in actuators that are more durable, lightweight, and energy-efficient, ultimately extending their lifespan and reducing their environmental impact. The miniaturization of linear actuators will persist, especially in fields like medical devices and micro-robotics, enabling intricate movements in confined spaces. As industries explore greener and more sustainable technologies, linear actuators will continue to play a vital role in achieving energy-efficient automation and enabling a wide range of innovative applications across sectors such as manufacturing, healthcare, aerospace, and beyond.

Browse Linear Actuators From Actuonix

Actuonix provides linear actuators for a wide range of industries, allowing technology to keep up with our client’s imagination. Browse actuators by model today and reach out to us with questions or to submit an order.