How Does a Linear Actuator Work?

Across aerospace, electronic, pharmaceutical, and countless other industries, linear actuators are employed to convert the rotational motion generated by an electric motor into linear motion. As terminology and applications for different types of linear actuators can become convoluted on the Internet, these parts are complex and versatile, so this blog will provide a simple overview of this popular part.

Within various types of machinery, linear motion is required for movements like pushing and pulling or lifting and tilting, all of which can be accomplished with the installation of a linear actuator. Depending on the specific application, one should determine whether to use either a positioning linear actuator or a thrust force electric linear actuator. The difference between the two is how each generates motion. The components and functions of each are slightly different, so it is important to understand both prior to purchasing a linear actuator.

The thrust force electric linear actuator is the most popular form of actuator available, and it consists of a tube that sits on top of a lead screw, ball screw, or in some cases, a roller screw. This tube is what creates push/pull force and movement. At the opposite, rear-end of the actuator, an AC or DC motor produces rotary motion. When power, either AC or DC electric current, is applied to the actuator, the motor runs and drives the internal gearbox which, in turn, transfers torque to the screw. The rotational motion of the screw drives the linear motion of the rod, producing the desired push/pull effect. These actuators generate reliable linear motion; however, if an application requires the accurate positioning and smooth, controlled movement of an object or subsystem within a larger machine, positioning linear actuators should be used.

Positioning linear actuators also receive power from a motor; however, it is more often a servo motor, rather than an AC or DC motor. Unlike thrust force electric linear actuators, positioning linear actuators are often specified without the motors, so the user or designer may select the optimum motor, gearbox, controller, etc., for their application. While the conversion of rotational torque to translational (linear) movement might be accomplished with a screw,  belts are also very common and allow for greater strokes and cost savings. On the other hand, rigid channels in these types of actuators allow for more controlled, precise movement.

Depending on the type of actuator and its setup, there are different ways to control the device. For example, certain actuators employ motors that can be operated with a simple on and off switch paired with a power supply. More commonly, control will involve a servo, ‘smart,’ or other motor, with the associated drive, controller, etc. Often, actuators are used within larger machine systems and are controlled by the machine PLC. Some actuators are also independent systems, but still require some interfacing with a PLC. Other actuators are capable of complex movement profiles that can be simply programmed via PC software, rather than from a PLC.

Typically, when one is searching for an actuator, they must consider the trade-off between force and speed. Even within the same model range, actuators might have varying forces and speeds. This is because, while the motor remains the same, changes in the gearbox provide the facility for different movement characteristics dependent on the application. Commonly, this is the trade-off between speed and force; one must often choose between higher force but lower speed or higher speed with lower force.

Whether you require linear actuators for medical applications, machine handling, packaging, or other uses, we have you covered for all the parts and components you require at NSN Axis. We are a leading online distributor of premium aircraft parts, including the items required for both positioning linear actuators and thrust force electric linear actuators. Owned and operated by ASAP Semiconductor, quality is the cornerstone of our business, and we boast access to an ever-expanding inventory of over 2 billion new, used, obsolete, and hard-to-find parts, all of which are sourced reliably from trusted manufacturers on our Approved Vendor List (AVL). Furthermore, we proudly operate with S9120B, ISO 9001:2015, and FAA AC 00-56B accreditation, in tandem with a strict No China Sourcing policy. This ensures you always receive authentic and reliable items from us.

Kick-off the parts procurement process today upon submission of a Request for Quote form. These are located on our websites next to all available items and should be completed with as much detail as possible. Our team of market experts look for target prices, shipping deadlines, and desired quantities when crafting a customized quote for your comparisons. Within 15 minutes or less of RFQ form submission, our team will provide a response through help of our Instant Quote service. For further inquiries regarding our products and services, you may contact us at any time via phone or email; we are available 24/7x365!


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