How Does an Actuator Work?

Actuators depend on transfer of energy – via electricity, hydraulic pressure, human muscle or otherwise – to perform mechanical work that sets a system in motion or controls it. Actuators can be mechanical systems, such as a pneumatic pump, or digital, such as laser printer drivers.

Actuators perform mechanical work in several different kinds of systems. For example, an electric actuator uses a motor to convert electricity into torque that can turn the spindle in a CD-ROM drive, while hydraulic actuators can run pumps for swimming pools or turn cranks to move palettes of heavy cartons around a warehouse. Picking the right actuator means considering a job’s requirement for speed, force, acceleration, energy efficiency and other considerations.

Many factors can affect the performance of actuators. According to, working conditions and job type determine what kind of actuator is needed to perform specific work. For instance, jobs that require rapid changes to the components of a working system may be better handled by modular electric actuators. A pneumatic actuator is a better choice for a job that requires a wide range of pressure changes than a hydraulic actuator, as hydraulic fluid can only be compressed so much. Current developments in actuator technology may lead to “plug and play” actuators that respond via wireless networking.