The Pros and Cons of Electric, Pneumatic, and Hydraulic Actuators
Manufacturers have a choice of power options for machine and equipment operation. Electric, pneumatic, and hydraulic actuators are all viable modes for delivering supreme force, but it’s not always clear which solution is ideal. Manufacturers must choose their actuator setup according to their specific application requirements — which requires clear understanding of what makes one mode more applicable than another.
What are the pros and cons of electric, pneumatic, and hydraulic actuators? How do they differ, and what makes them applicable in different scenarios?
Electrical actuators use motion to convert electricity into kinetic energy. Manufacturers looking for precision will find great results with electrical actuators. They allow for full control of motion and offer much easier modulation of energy than fluid power. Electrical actuators are also easy to network and program — allowing for quick feedback and diagnostics. They’re also the quietest option.
On the con side, electrical actuators are usually more expensive than pneumatic and hydraulic equipment. They’re also large and bulky — depending on the application — and may present electrical and flammable hazards if kept in volatile environments.
- Highest precision controls and quietest function
- Easily programmed and calibrated for unique applications
- Higher cost than hydraulic or pneumatic options
Pneumatic actuators use the extension and retraction of a piston rod to convert compressed air into linear force. They feature a simple design, and since they use air as opposed to fluids or electricity, they are usually safer to operate and easier to repair. Pneumatic actuators are often the cheaper option — making them a good option for those on a strict budget.
Pneumatic actuators require proportional sizing for all valves, regulators, and compressors. This makes using them for specific jobs a bit complex. Contamination by lubrication — which can lead to extended downtimes — is also a possibility with pneumatic actuators, and they aren’t as capable as similar devices due to pressure losses.
- Simple function that’s easy to assemble and maintain
- Useful in hazardous areas where electric and hydraulic options aren’t suitable
- Requires a high degree of customization for each application
Hydraulic actuators use pumps of incompressible oil to power their systems. It’s possible to customize hydraulic actuators to handle almost any amount of force — which makes them the strongest available option. These devices produce high speeds and hold a constant force without requiring more liquid.
One of the main disadvantages of hydraulics is their high maintenance and constant monitoring requirements. Hydraulic actuators also need additional parts, including pumps, motors, a fluid reservoir, and more — all of which require their own upkeep and maintenance.
- Great for high-speed, high-pressure applications
- Ability to hold a constant force based on the fluid used in the application
- Require a high level of maintenance and oversight to maintain
What’s the “best” option?
Each type of actuator comes with its own pros and cons. Choosing the right one depends on the specific demands of each power application and the operating environment. Consider the pros and cons of each power mode carefully. To choose the right one, factor in budget, scalability, and maintenance requirements as well.