How electrification of linear actuators improve material handling automation
Electric actuators are helping connect the emerging digital world and the physical world. Three factors impacting industrial motion and seven linear actuator advances are highlighted.
- Learn the advantages of electric linear actuators over their hydraulic and pneumatic alternatives.
- Learn about the most important factors to consider when automation material handling motion sequences.
- Learn how machine builders and end-users can ensure a healthy ROI on custom projects making use of electric linear actuators.
Linear actuator insights
- Electric linear actuators are offering more sophisticated and advanced capabilities for material handling automation.
- Electric linear actuators have been used in material handling operations for many years and there have been advances in heavy load handling, extended stroke lengths, compactness and intelligence.
- To calculate the most accurate return on investment (ROI) in electric linear actuator technology, designers must make procurement decisions in the context of the entire product lifecycle.
Electric linear actuators are helping raise material handling application to new heights. As digital transformation extends the scope of automation to more axes and electric linear actuators handle increasingly heavier loads, more material handling system designers are converting hydraulic and pneumatic motion control to electric, especially in new projects. Linear actuator suppliers are developing innovations that extend the scope of material handling automation in load management, sizing, intelligence, durability, energy efficiency, safety and ergonomics.
The scope of material handling automation
Electric linear actuators now offer sophisticated, advanced capabilities for material handling automation. Whether it be the peripheral intralogistics of conveying and transporting or support for production processes such as feeding and filling, material handling is increasingly vital to industrial operations. (Figure 1)
In an assembly operation, for example, linear actuators might feed materials, manipulating them to optimize access to work surfaces or diverting objects from one conveyor to another. In another example,, setting up can consume up to half the work cycle in food packaging operations. Linear actuators might reduce the time by automating the unfolding of cardboard or cutting film.
Electric actuators also can expand the controllable working radius, carrying materials toward or away from processing. They might support motion on forklifts, automated guided vehicles (AGVs), telescopic lifting units or overhead conveyors.
Three factors impacting industrial motion
Automating material handling motion sequences requires close consideration of the following factors:
Physical properties. Material handling automation developers must consider the shape, weight, size, position and direction stability of packages moving along a plant or conveyor system. They also must consider how the package materials affect their rollability, slide-ability, stack-ability, surface sensitivity and stiffness.
Environmental parameters. Material handling equipment designers must consider parameters such as room layout, machine size limitations and available degrees of freedom.
Motion parameters. Like most motion control applications, material handling applications consider weight and inertia of the payload as determined by speed and acceleration within cycle times and the required accuracy.
Material handling applications may also require special attention to kinematic factors such as drift, overshoot, stabilization time and interchangeability, with particular attention to the drive, power transmission system, position measuring system and bearings. Friction also can lead to play in the bearings, poor resolution of the position measuring systems and structural static deformation. Dynamic flexibility also can contribute to neural weaknesses, which can lead to errors and failures. Equipment designers must address all these factors within the context of maintenance, safety and durability.
Seven electric linear actuator advances for material handling
Electric linear actuators have been used in material handling operations for many years. During that time, there have been many advances, optimizing them for supporting new industrial operations. These advances include:
1. Heavy load handling. Electric actuators can now handle heavy duty loads up to 25 kN, which had been relegated to hydraulic or pneumatic cylinders. These improvements are due in large part to component material improvements and advancements in ball screw technology, such as implementation with ball bearings.
2. Extended stroke lengths. Electric linear actuators are now also capable of longer strokes, tackling applications that hydraulics and pneumatics had previously dominated. Electric linear actuators had previously been limited to 300 or 400 mm per stroke; they now can span up to 1.2 m.
3. Compact design for confined spaces. Actuators are often designed into confined spaces. On a packaging line, for example, feeding and cutting systems may compete with other units for space. On an AGV or forklift, space is always at a premium, and actuator size can also impact energy usage. Actuators with housing the size of a passport can now handle loads up to 2000 N (450 lbs.) They fit into small spaces that previous-generation actuators would be either too large or too weak.
This compactness and simplicity are a major difference from hydraulics and pneumatics, which require an imposing infrastructure of equipment such as pumps, hoses, valves, reservoirs and compressors. Electric actuators simply plug into a power supply and connect to a network. Integrating a programmable logic controller (PLC) with an electric actuator allows for more efficient and seamless control, resulting in reduced downtime, increased productivity and cost savings.
4. Improved intelligence and network integration. Electric linear actuators are now available with modular onboard controls that enable simple on/off switches, low-level switching, position feedback and CAN bus network integration. They can monitor and control, diagnose, read position and operating statistics in real time, and be fine-tuned on the fly. (Figure 2) As factories become more digitally advanced, designers will integrate material handling capabilities into more sophisticated operations. Loads will move more intelligently, enabling programmed motion sequences, remote system operation and synchronization across multiple actuators.
5. Longer operating life. Material handling applications often run 24/7 in set-and-forget applications. Production line applications, such as an arm that diverts items from one conveyor belt to another, have high-duty cycles and are subject to wear and tear. AGVs, forklifts and other mobile equipment may be deployed in those applications and usually run on batteries. (Figure 3) Equipment used outdoors or in hazardous environments, and subject to ingress from moisture and dust can also require long life.
Linear actuators using brushless motors can have duty cycles of 100% and up to 600 km of maintenance-free life. This is a major advantage over hydraulic and pneumatic technologies, which require almost constant maintenance. Plus, lubrication technology has advanced to the point where some actuators are factory lubricated for life. Adherence to IP standards of IP65, IP66 and IP69K prevent particulate, moisture and other ingress that can shorten an actuator’s life.
6. Safety and ergonomics. Material handling equipment constantly puts humans at risk. For example, a machine that loses power may drop its load faster than a human can get out of the way. There might be ergonomic challenges resulting from repeated movements or awkward workpiece positioning.
Electric linear actuators aid in these situations with electromechanical and static holding brakes, which hold the load in place in case an application loses power. They also can make work safer by raising, lowering, or tilting worktables to comfortable, more ergonomic angles.
Automated picking helps avoid long feeder routes and relieves the operating personnel from the work cycle of the machine as much as possible, keeping ergonomics and safety a priority. (Figure 4) Replacing hydraulic cylinders also removes the risk of slipping and falling on leaked fluid as well as product contamination from solid fluid leaks.
7. Customizing linear actuators for competitive advantage. While the range of available technologies is growing, application diversity also is driving the need for custom solutions. Designers are increasingly requiring components and systems to fit unique needs. Manufacturers often can meet these needs with minor modifications to standard offerings, but on occasion they may have to design something from the ground up. Actuator suppliers with the broadest offerings are most likely to adapt standard lines or have the expertise to design something from scratch. Their flexibility and willingness to augment their standard offering is also a factor. Customization capability is another significant advantage of most new designs for electrified equipment. This equipment is often more modular than earlier generations, and changes can be made by modifying, adding or removing axes. Electric designs reduce the need to redesign to larger components of a system such as a hydraulic manifold/valve redesign, tube or hose route.
Getting a strong return on investment (ROI)
To calculate the most accurate ROI with the right amortization on a custom project for the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) and end user, designers must make procurement decisions in the context of the entire product lifecycle, including production costs, ongoing operating costs and potential productivity. Likewise, the decision should factor in the benefits of integrating the latest technology, such as onboard electronics, which contribute to greater competitiveness for the OEM and benefits for the end user.
Electric actuators are the key technology connecting the emerging digital world and the physical world. Up until quite recently, this gap had been too wide to span. However, now that electric actuators are stronger, smarter and more affordable, the chasm isn’t as daunting. Electrification is ushering in a new era of efficiency, which will contribute to better automation, improved material handling and better business.
Travis Gilmer, Product Line Manager – Linear Actuators, Thomson Industries. Edited by David Miller, Content Manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media and Technology, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Keywords: Linear actuators, motion control
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