Electric Linear Actuators Explained: Frequently Asked Questions and Answers

By John Fenske on July 7, 2023

Electric linear actuators are versatile and powerful devices that can be used to create precise linear motion in a variety of applications. From manufacturing automation to product design, they continue to be an essential tool for design engineers seeking innovative solutions.

With so many options and technical details to consider, it can be challenging to know which technology is the right fit for your unique needs. That’s why we’ve put together this guide to answer the most frequently asked questions about electric linear actuators — from how they work to their most common applications.

How does a linear actuator work?

A linear actuator is a device that converts rotational motion into linear motion in order to move objects in a straight line. They typically consist of an electric motor and a lead, ball, or roller screw which translates the rotary motion of the motor into linear motion.

When the motor is activated, it rotates the screw, which moves the nut or guide mechanism along its length, subsequently moving any attached loads.

Linear actuators can be powered by AC or DC electric motors and controlled by a variety of means like switches, potentiometers or programmable controllers. Some linear actuators are also equipped with sensors that provide performance feedback on position, velocity and force.

What are the different types of linear actuators?

There are four main varieties of linear actuator: electric, hydraulic and pneumatic. Each variety has its own unique characteristics:

  • Electric linear actuators. Electric linear actuators are precise, efficient, and controllable with a wide range of force output and speed options. They are also relatively quiet and low-maintenance, making them ideal for the widest variety of applications. The varieties of electric linear actuators are vast and include rodless electro-mechanical actuators, electric rod actuators, roller screw actuators and beyond.
  • Hydraulic linear actuators. Hydraulic linear actuators use pressurized fluid to create linear motion. A piston or plunger is driven forward or backward by the fluid, which in turn creates movement. Hydraulic linear actuators are powerful and capable of generating high force output, making them ideal for heavy-duty applications. However, they can be noisy and require more maintenance than other types of actuators.
  • Pneumatic linear actuators. Pneumatic linear actuators use compressed air to generate linear motion. The air is typically delivered to a piston or diaphragm, which then moves back and forth. Pneumatic linear actuators are relatively inexpensive and offer quick, responsive motion in both rodless and rod-style options.

Does a linear actuator need a motor?

Yes, an electric linear actuator requires some form of motor in order to generate linear motion. The type of motor will depend on the type of actuator: the force and speed requirements.

How do you control an electric linear actuator?

Electric linear actuators can be controlled in a number of ways depending on the specific requirement of their proposed application. Common interfaces include end-to-end travel, switches and programmable controllers.

  • End-to-End Travel. Actuator has a hard stop at the beginning and end of travel with no other positioning. They are either fully extended or retracted.
  • Switches. Switches are the simplest way of controlling electric linear actuators. They can be as simple as on/off or more complex with additional positions that give more specialized movement control.
  • Programmable controllers. Programmable controllers are often used to control actuators in industrial applications where unique positions or movement patterns are required.

It’s recommended to consult the manufacturer’s specifications or consult with an expert to determine the most appropriate method of control for your unique electric linear actuator application.

Can electric linear actuators be customized to meet specific requirements?

Yes. If you have a unique application need, the right partner will be able to design and engineer a custom linear actuator to meet your needs. Tolomatic has a model shop staffed by skilled engineers and technicians that design, model and test prototypes.

Curious about the process? Here’s how it works:

  • Requirements Consultation: First you’ll collaborate with our design engineers for preliminary evaluation and concept analysis.
  • Preliminary Design: Next we combine your needs with our expertise to develop an initial product design.
  • Rapid Prototype: You’ll receive a prototype product for initial evaluation of form, fit, and function.
  • Design Verification and Acceptance: Testing occurs to verify performance to your specifications.
  • Production: Once we have final approval, your customized product will be produced and delivered.

Have more questions about electric linear actuators?

If you’d like to have additional information about electric linear actuator solutions explained, get in touch with our team. We’re happy to help.