Linear Actuators

Actuators 101 - Everything you need to know about actuators.

Linear Actuators 101 - Everything you need to know about linear Actuators

This blog will help you understand all the terminology used, and to give you an understanding on how a Linear Actuator actually works and operates. When you understand the basics, it makes it much easier for you to select your own Electric Linear Actuator.

First, lets define what an Actuator is.

what is an actuator

An Actuator is a device that requires an energy source input, an external signal input, both of which then create an output usually in the form of a motion that can be either Rotary or Linear.

For the purpose of this Article we will focus more on a Linear Actuator.

To help you further we have created an article called “Don’t buy a Linear Actuator until you read these 5-steps” this can help you avoid the many pitfalls of buying an electric Linear Actuator online.

We have also created a Calculator that can be used to calculate what type of Linear Actuator you may need for your application. Simply enter some basic details into the calculator and the results will be show. Click here for the Linear Actuator Calculator

What is a Linear Actuator?

An electric linear actuator is a device that converts the rotational motion of a AC or DC motor into linear motion –  it will provide both push and pull movements.

By pushing and pulling it is possible to lift, drop, slide, adjust, tilt, push, or pull objects simply by pressing a button.

Additionally, Linear Actuators provide a safe and clean movement with accurate motion control that you, the operator have full control over. They are energy efficient and have a long lifetime with little or no maintenance.

Installing an actuator is very easy compared to hydraulic or pneumatic systems and they take up much less space, as they have no pumps or hoses. They are also significantly cheaper than Hydraulic or Pneumatic Actuators for the same reason.

An electric linear actuator consists of a DC or AC motor, a series of gears and a Lead screw including a driving nut that pushes the main rod shaft in and out. This is in essence what all Linear Actuator consist of, and all that changes from Actuator to Actuator are the motor size, the gearing and the leadscrew. Some other electronics help to perform the amount of stroke limit switching and positional feedback options, but basically an Actuator is nothing more than a motor, some gears and a leadscrew.

What is a Lifting Column?

column lift - lifting column

Lifting columns are another form of Linear Actuator. Typically, they provide a longer stroke because they have multiple stages, that allows them to expend and contract in a longer length than they are when fully closed. Another way to put it is that a Column Lift is an Actuator within an Actuator.

One other advantage of a column lift is that the linear guiding is built into the structure of the actuator, and does not need adding externally. Linear Actuator usually don’t cope well with side loading (we discuss that later). Column Lifts have their guiding system build into the Lifts which is why they are better for some applications over others.

Why use an Electric Linear Actuator instead of Hydraulic?

Electric Linear Actuators are the perfect solution when you need simple, safe and clean movement with accurate and smooth motion control. Actuator systems can be used for adjustments, tilting, pushing, pulling, and lifting; all while maintaining high forces.

Alternatively, a hydraulic system is capable of immense forces too, but those systems require high-pressure pumps, high-pressure valves and piping, and a large reservoir tank to hold all that Hydraulic fluid in. So, if you have a lot of space, and money is no object; Hydraulics could be the way to go.

The hydraulic actuator uses fluid to push a piston backwards and forwards, where as an Electric Linear Actuator uses an AC or DC motor to drive a lead screw fitted with a nut which moves up and down the lead screw, thereby converting rotary motion into linear motion.

From an operating standpoint, there are drawbacks to using Hydraulics: Loss of control. You have very little precision control when it comes to hydraulic systems.

A Linear Actuator has a long lifetime, requiring little or no maintenance at all. This ensures a very low total operating cost compared to other systems.

Electric actuator systems are quiet, clean, non-toxic and energy efficient. They fulfill the ever increasing demands and legislation concerning environmentally sound equipment. One standard FIRGELLI actuator uses the same amount of power as a light bulb.

What are some real world examples of what a Linear Actuator can do?

Solar tracking linear actuators

Linear actuators move things, and we have seen thousands of applications over the years.

Some examples of practical automation applications are:

  • Motorized hatches
  • Kitchen appliance lifts
  • Throttle control
  • Marine engine hatch
  • Slide out steps
  • Snow plow adjusters
  • Hoppers
  • Hidden doors
  • Solar panels
  • Sliding doors
  • Sliding window treatments
  • Farming implementations
  • Animatronics and Robotics.

Industrial applications include:

  • Damper control and height adjustable work stations
  • Home Automation such as moving TV’s or Projectors.

What is the difference between Static Load and Dynamic Load?

You may have seen us mention these on our Specification Sheets. The dynamic, working, or lifting load is the force that will be applied to the linear actuator while it is in motion. Static load, sometimes called the holding load, is the force that will be applied to the linear actuator when it is not in motion. The Dynamic load is how much the actuator can move, and the static load is how much can be held in place.

In what direction can loads be applied to Linear Actuators?

Linear Actuators can be used in tension, compression or combination applications. We refer to this as the pushing or puling force. Side loading or cross loading should be avoided. But in these situations we suggest to customers to use linear Slide rails or guide rails in their system, to be able to handle any side loading, and rely on the Actuator to provide the pure push and pulling work.

Is side loading permissible on Linear Actuators?

Side loading, or radial loading is a force applied perpendicular to the linear actuator center-line. Eccentric loading is any force whose center of gravity does not act through the longitudinal axis of the actuator. Both side loading and eccentric loading should always be avoided as they can cause binding and shorten the life of the linear actuator. However, if you use a Drawer Slide, it will greatly impact how much load can be applied. By placing the moving object on a Drawer slide, you place the load weight on the slide instead of the Actuator's rod and lead screw.

Do Linear Actuators have limit switches?

inside a linear actuator - cut away view - Actuator with limit switch

Most Linear actuators come with limit switches built into them. The type of limit switches available varies with each product range, these include electro-mechanical, magnetic proximity and rotary cam. Limit switches are normally pre-set on actuators to stop the Actuator stroke when it gets to its full extension, and full retraction.

The limit switches are important because it prevents the Actuator from burning and stalling the motor when it reaches the end of its stroke. The limit switch simply cuts power to the motor while still allowing a change in direction.

External Limit switches allow you the flexibility to set the limits of travel in your system to fit your particular application. The customer is responsible for properly setting the limit switch in the unit. If the limit switches are not set, or are improperly set, the unit may be damaged during operation.

What type of motors do the Linear Actuators use?

Linear Actuators 101 - Everything you want to know about Linear Actuators

Linear Actuators are available with AC or DC motor variants, however each range has preferred standard types. DC Motors are the most popular and in 12v typically. 24v motors are used for more industrial applications or in high force Actuators. 24v is more efficient for higher force applications

The AC Motors will be either 220-240 VAC 1-phase motors, 220-240/380-415VAC 3-phase motors (50/60Hz) or 24VDC motors.

Are Linear Actuators available in different speeds?

Linear actuators are available in a variety of linear speeds and a standard list is detailed with each product. Different speeds are achieved by gear-ratios. Please note: Force and Speed have an inverse relationship. The faster the actuator moves, the less force it applies, and vice-versa. 

What is the duty cycle capability of a Linear Actuator?

Duty cycle rating for a linear actuator is generally expressed as a percentage of “on time” (the ratio of 'on' time to total time) or as distance traveled over a period of time. The duty cycle rating is expressed differently for different actuator types.

What type of mounting do the Linear Actuators have?

The linear actuators generally have a mounting points we call clevises at each end of the actuator to allow a pivoting movement. Each Actuator has its own standardized Mounting Bracket specially designed for it; however this does not mean it is the only possible bracket.

What type of enclosures do the Linear Actuators have?

Linear Actuators have different Ingress Protection (IP) ratings. The lower the number, the lower the protection is. IP54 offers basic protection against dust; a higher rating (IP66) offers a water proof protection and ideal for outdoor use. This chart below shows the IP rating of each of Firgelli's Linear Actuators. We also wrote a separate Blog post just on the topic of Linear Actuator IP ratings here.

IP ratings of Linear Actuators

Is back-driving possible in electro-mechanical Linear Actuators?

Yes, unless otherwise stated, back-driving is always possible in all electric linear actuators. Back-driving is when a force is applied that’s greater than the static force, allowing the Actuator shaft to move without any power applied to it. Actuators that use a ball screw are normally fitted with an electrical brake (typically motor mounted) to prevent the load from back-driving the actuator.

Can a Linear Actuator be run into a hard stop?

We do not recommend applications with hard stops because it can lead to the Actuator becoming jammed. Examples of jamming include over-travelling the limit switches, jamming the nut and screw internally at the extreme ends of the stroke; or driving the actuator against an immovable object, overloading the actuator.

What are the common factors in the failure of a Linear Actuator?

Improper loading, improper installation, excessive use (duty) and extreme environments may contribute to premature actuator failure. The most popular by far is over loading due to amplification of force.

Can two or more Linear Actuators be synchronized?

Small differences in motor speed is fairly normal. And different actuator loading may cause the units to get out of synchronization very easily. The units cannot therefore be guaranteed to run in synchronization. For exact synchronization a closed loop control system is recommended. This is possible using an Actuator with built in Feedback and that feedback data is sent to a controller where that controller then calculates how to make actuators run together regardless of their loading or speed differences. Feedback Actuators include Potentiometers, Optical sensors, or Hall sensors.

Are the actuators lubricated for life?

Linear actuators are grease lubricated for the internal parts of the actuator including gearbox assemblies and the leadscrew and nut assemblies. The actuators are greased for life.

Temperature Test

In the temperature test the actuators are tested to operate in extreme temperatures as well as to endure rapid changes in temperature. In most cases tests are performed on the actuator to withstand going from a +100°C environment to -20°C repeatedly and still maintain full functionality.

For a much more details overview on how a Linear Actuator works, we created this article "Inside a Linear Actuator - How an Actuator works"

Search engine listing preview Linear Actuators Actuators 101 - Everything you need to know about. Lear all the terminology used and to get a deep understanding on how an Actuator really works and operates. When you understand the basics, it makes it much easier for you to select your own. Actuators are electro-mechanical devices that move in a linear motion. Visibility Visibility Visible (as of 12/3/2020, 1:47 PM PST) Hidden Template Select a template for this page. Template suffix page page Submit

Need Help Finding the Right Actuator?

We precision engineer and manufacture our products so you get direct manufacturers pricing. We offer same day shipping and knowledgeable customer support. Try using our Actuator Calculator to get help picking the right actuator for your application.