An actuator is a type of motor for moving or controlling a mechanism or system. It is operated by a source of energy, typically electric current, hydraulic fluid pressure, or pneumatic pressure, and converts that energy into motion. An actuator is the mechanism by which a control system acts upon an environment. The control system can be simple (a fixed mechanical or electronic system), software-based (e.g. a printer driver, robot control system), or a human or other agent.
Some of the earliest forms of actuation can be found as far back as Archimedes, who lived approximately between the years 287 B.C., and 212 B.C. What became known as Archimedes' screw was one of the first linear actuators used to haul water from boats.
Other early actuation methods included mechanisms with wooden screws designed to crush grapes into wine and olives into oil.
A hydraulic actuator consists of a cylinder or fluid motor that uses hydraulic power to facilitate mechanical operation. The mechanical motion gives an output in terms of linear, rotary or oscillatory motion. Because liquid cannot be compressed, a hydraulic actuator can exert considerable force, but is limited in acceleration and speed.
A pneumatic actuator converts energy formed by compressed air at high pressure into either linear or rotary motion. Pneumatic energy is desirable for main engine controls because it can quickly respond in starting and stopping as the power source does not need to be stored in reserve for operation.
An electric actuator is powered by motor that converts electrical energy to mechanical torque. The electrical energy is used to actuate equipment such as multi-turn valves. It is one of the cleanest and most readily available forms of actuator because it does not involve oil.
A mechanical actuator functions by converting rotary motion into linear motion to execute movement. It involves gears, rails, pulleys, chains and other devices to operate.
Examples and applications
In engineering, actuators are frequently used as mechanisms to introduce motion, or to clamp an object so as to prevent motion. In electronic engineering, actuators are a subdivision of transducers. They are devices which transform an input signal (mainly an electrical signal) into motion. Electrical motors, pneumatic actuators, hydraulic pistons, relays, comb drives, piezoelectric actuators, thermal bimorphs, digital micromirror devices and electroactive polymers are some examples of such actuators.
Motors are mostly used when circular motions are needed, but can also be used for linear applications by transforming circular to linear motion with a lead screw or similar mechanism. On the other hand, some actuators are intrinsically linear, such as piezoelectric actuators. Conversion between circular and linear motion is commonly made via a few simple types of mechanism including:
- 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. By moving the screw shaft, the nut rotates.
- 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. By moving the linear member, the wheel/axle rotates.
In virtual instrumentation, actuators and sensors are the hardware complements of virtual instruments.
Performance metrics for actuators include speed, acceleration, and force (alternatively, angular speed, angular acceleration, and torque), as well as energy efficiency and considerations such as mass, volume, operating conditions, and durability, among others.
When considering force in actuators for applications, two main metrics should be considered. These two are static and dynamic loads. Static load is the force capability of the actuator while not in motion. Conversely, the dynamic load of the actuator is the force capability while in motion. The two aspects are rarely have the weight capability and must be considered separately.
Speed should be considered primarily at a no-load pace, since the speed will invariably decrease as the load amount increases. The rate the speed will decrease will directly correlate with the amount of force and the initial speed.
Actuators are commonly rated using the standard IP rating system. Those that are rated for dangerous environments will have a higher IP rating than those for personal or common industrial use.
This will be determined by each individual manufacturer, depending on usage and quality.
- Robot actuators
- Robotic hand end effector
- Nanotube nanomotor
- Linear actuator
- Hard disk drive actuator
- Torque motor
- Sclater, N., Mechanisms and Mechanical Devices Sourcebook, 4th Edition (2007), 25, McGraw-Hill
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