What is an actuator? Classification, usage?

An actuator, also known as a gearbox, is a mechanism that converts input signals into output actions, such as motion in a motor or piston in an engine. They encompass a range from tiny devices to large machinery.

Classification of actuation devices.

An actuator, also known as a gearbox, is a mechanism that converts input signals into output actions, such as motion in a motor or piston in an engine. They encompass a range from tiny devices to large machinery.

To perform motion, the actuating mechanism requires control signals and power supply. The energy can be in the form of electrical energy, hydraulic fluid pressure, pneumatic pressure, etc.

These are factors that convert energy into motion. They can be classified as linear or rotary actuators.

Popular types of actuators

Based on motion and transmission method, if we classify into two main types based on the input energy required for actuation, then we can say there are two main types: electric motors and pneumatic/hydraulic actuators. Now let’s delve deeper into the characteristics of these two types.

Electric actuators

An electric actuator is a mechanical device used to convert electrical energy into kinetic energy in linear or rotary motion. They are used for various purposes such as opening/closing doors, windows, industrial machinery, robotic arms, etc.

Linear actuators

Linear actuators are devices that provide mechanical force in a linear manner. They only have a pushing and pulling motion. Typical applications include construction equipment and robotics, but they can also be used in various other applications, such as car suspension systems.

  • Linear actuators are used to generate motion in a straight line.
  • They are used to move objects.
    Ideal for applications requiring precise speed control and high force, such as packaging applications and crane systems.
  • To apply linear motion for all your industrial automation needs, whether commercial or personal.

Pneumatic actuators

Pneumatic actuators are devices that convert energy in the form of compressed air into mechanical motion. They consist of a piston, cylinder, and valve or port.

Advantages of pneumatic actuators:

  • Very simple and inexpensive to build, operate, maintain, and repair.
  • They react very quickly and can generate significant force with low air consumption.
  • They are also very safe to operate in hazardous environments because they can use air instead of strong chemicals or electrical currents.

Electric linear actuators

These devices convert electrical energy into mechanical force. They can be used to provide linear or rotary motion when working with other basic components.

Rotary actuators

They are small devices that generate rotary motion. They are used to open and close valves in industrial settings. They can be manufactured in various ways, depending on the application.

The most common type of rotary actuator is the electric motor.

Thermal actuators

Thermal actuators are made of shape memory alloys or metals, capable of generating linear motions in response to changes in thermal energy. So, it can be used to drive a desired reaction at a certain temperature.

The most important characteristics of thermal actuators include noiseless operation, low weight, high precision, and reliability in most climatic conditions.

The actuator is highly versatile, as it can be used to control various applications. For example, in thermostats and temperature control systems, thermal actuators are often found in many households, schools, and businesses. It is also an important application in automobiles; it allows drivers to monitor their engine temperature while on the road.

Hydraulic actuators

They are used to generate large forces and displacements, but are easily controlled by computers. They are quieter, smoother, more reliable, and cost-effective compared to electric or pneumatic actuators. The most common industries using hydraulic actuators are agricultural machinery, construction machinery, and marine vehicles.

They use an incompressible fluid such as oil from a pump to fill the cylinder and transmit force to one or both sides of the piston. Speed and force can be adjusted by increasing the pressure of the fluid inside the cylinder.

They are widely used in many industrial applications, from industrial equipment to construction (construction vehicles), and also in the automotive industry. They are available in many types including linear and rotary pumps, cylinders, and motors.

Magnetic actuators

The Lorentz force principle is the basis for magnetic actuation. The force generated by this principle can be used to induce movement within mechanical structures.

Magnetic actuators use magnetism to generate linear or rotary motion. They are often used for very small-scale applications such as nano-robots. The main advantages of them are low voltage requirements and non-contact operation. One type of magnetic actuator is the Magneto-rheological fluid drive, which utilizes magnetic fields to change the viscosity of a fluid to create dynamic shaft bearings, active clutches, etc.

Flexible drives

It is an intelligent device that can be used to support engines. The engine is less likely to be damaged during startup thanks to this flexible drive mechanism, while also protecting the power grid of factories, enterprises, etc., from sudden electrical surges. Additionally, it gradually increases the current to its rated value.

The flexible drive is a new type of material that can create precise bio-mimetic motions imitating biological mechanics. The main advantages of them are low density and biodegradability. Based on their composition, they can react to stimuli such as light, heat, EMF, pH changes, etc.

Mechanical actuators

Actuators are mechanical devices that convert one form of energy into another form of energy. They utilize gears, chains, pulleys, and other mechanical components to operate.

Mechanical actuators involve the conversion of rotary motion into another form, such as linear motion or vice versa. It is used to increase torque or power output, or even to convert linear motion into rotary motion or vice versa.


The most common and versatile types of actuators are hydraulic, pneumatic, and electric actuators. Used in conjunction with other drive systems or to provide desired mechanical outputs, they can be tailored for most engineering applications.

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