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What Is a Smart Actuator?

By K'Lee Banks
Updated May 17, 2024
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Actuators are mechanical devices that allow a person to apply a specific motion or force indirectly to a product or process, rather than by hand. Individuals can control actuators manually or govern them with the assistance of computer software or interfaces. Actuators manipulated by programmable logic or computers are known as “smart” actuators. Many types of actuators are available. Two common types include linear or straight-line movement, and rotary or circular movement actuators.

The basic purpose of an actuator is to allow an individual to apply force or movement to a product that he or she would otherwise move manually. Individuals often set simple actuators into motion through the use of a lever or a button, but smart actuators usually require some type of computer interface. This action of incorporating a computer interface provides the ability to monitor certain criteria of a product as it moves along a conveyor belt, such as weight and/or size. Products that do not meet certain requirements might then trigger the smart actuator to energize or initialize, and strategically move the product, such as push it off the belt toward a different department.

An actuator system is simply a series of actuators that work together to provide completely autonomous manipulation of a product. The benefits of a smart actuator system such as this, or even as a single unit, may include precise repetition; speed or increased production; and reduced human interaction, which is beneficial for products that may pose a health risk. Another benefit of a smart actuator system is virtually non-stop production, since machines don’t require breaks the way humans do. Smart actuators are therefore an efficient way to take the “human element” out of production. Proper implementation of a smart actuator can greatly increase a company’s profit margin by reducing the manpower necessary to manipulate its product.

The various applications of actuators dictate the integral actuator parts. For example, manufacturing facilities that already have pneumatic operations in place may opt for actuators powered by air pressure. In contrast, production facilities that already have a number of electric motors in use may choose to avoid additional electrically controlled units for fear of electromagnetic interference.

Availability of actuator parts can also be a determining factor in selecting the right smart actuator for one’s application. Smart actuator motors allow power production through either electricity or hydraulic pressure. Generally, a company's decision about what power source to use will be influenced most by its currently available power resources.

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