Moving Forward with Linear Actuators

by Joanna Dykhuis, IQS Editor

“Kitchen automation” has little to do with robots, conveyor belts or self-assembling food, contrary to the images that pop up in my head immediately upon hearing the phrase. We live in an electronic-filled world with new gadgets being developed all the time. It only makes sense that technology would eventually make it to the kitchen. Linear actuators are the devices mainly responsible for the introduction of popup spice racks or fold-down televisions. Though appliances such as microwaves, refrigerators and dishwashers have drastically improved through new technologies, kitchen automation is the newest development. Disappearing cabinets, sliding tabletops and rising counters may sound like pure imagination but they are becoming a reality through these useful devices.

Linear actuators produce motion in one straight direction. They are similar to linear bearings in that they provide smooth motion with a minimum of friction but actuators go one step further and convert hydraulic, pneumatic, and electric energy into mechanical energy. Many linear actuators are controlled by computers so with the touch of a button or a click of the mouse, the device will power up and begin to move its load along its single axis. Basic linear actuators may be powered by hand.

One advantage of linear actuators is the simplicity of the movement: up, down, left or right. Because of their simplicity, linear actuators are suitable for basic but useful movements. Rotary actuators are the exception, however, because they rotate a shaft that moves in a fixed arc to produce oscillating power. Though the trajectory is not linear but instead curved, rotary actuators retain the common characteristic that they move only in one specific way.

Another advantage of these devices is that they do not have many parts that can break or wear out. A typical electromechanical actuator basically consists of a motor, a screw and a nut. As the motor provides power, the nut moves forward instead of rotating along the screw, thus converting the input energy into mechanical energy. The load is connected to a strong platform at the end of the screw. When used in kitchens, linear actuators are often installed under a countertop which makes them difficult to access and service. They must be strong enough to lift heavy loads and durable enough to perform repetitive motions day after day.

Photos courtesy of Haydon Kerk Motion Solutions.

Outside of the kitchen, linear actuators are typically used in industrial or manufacturing applications. Nearly all factory automation processes use linear actuators to push, lift, rotate or transport products or equipment during various manufacturing processes. 12V linear actuators and microactuators are commonly used in these robotic processes. Some linear actuators and units operate in vacuum, radiation, cryogenic, corrosive and underwater environments. They are also integral parts of machining equipment. Whether linear actuators are carrying car chassis down the assembly line or raising a rack of spices from under the countertop, linear actuators play a simple but important role in many factories, manufacturing plants and kitchens around the world.

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