DIY Linear Actuator: Should You Build or Buy a Linear Actuator

DIY Linear Actuator

You may have thought of the idea of making your very own DIY Linear Actuator. Whether you’re looking for a linear actuator for something simple like controlling a greenhouse vent or more complex, like a TV lift system, you have two options to acquire one—buy it or build it.

Deciding which option to go with can be challenging. Both have different processes, advantages, disadvantages, and results. To help you make the final call, let’s take a closer look at the options, guiding you through the considerations, benefits, and setbacks of buying or building an actuator.

What Is a Linear Actuator?

A linear actuator is a device that changes the rotational motor motion to provide push and pull movements, allowing the actuator to lift, drop, tilt, slide, and tip items at the push of a button.

There are several areas linear actuators are implemented in. Some application areas include:

  • Throttle control
  • Home automation
  • Robotics and animatronics
  • Farming implementation
  • Motorized hatches

Linear actuators give you complete control over a range of fluid and safe movements. They are also energy efficient, often having a long lifespan, and require minimal maintenance.

Types of Linear Actuators

Linear actuators fall into three main categories, each differing in operation and application, including:

Hydraulic linear actuators

This type of linear actuators utilizes pressurized hydraulic fluid to function. They are great for applications that require precision control, mechanical stiffness, and high amounts of force.

However, they can be quite loud, produce a lot of heat, and need regular maintenance. Their operation also requires additional equipment like pumps, release valves, and fluid valves. 

Pneumatic linear actuators

These actuators make use of pressurized air and are used in areas where speed is a concern. Some of these areas include pumps, dentistry, air compressors, nail guns, mail tubes, and more.

Electric linear actuators

Electric linear actuators consist of a motor, a lead screw, and a series of gears that push the central rod in and out. From robotics to material handling and solar panel operation, electric linear actuators’ application areas are widespread.

Building or Buying a Linear Actuator

Beyond deciding the type of linear actuator to use for your project, there is also the matter of opting for either a DIY linear actuator or buying one. Here is what each of those options would involve:

Buying a Linear Actuator

When buying a linear actuator, you will need to take certain considerations into account, such as:

  • Your desired size
  • The amount of force your project requires
  • The movement, either vertical or horizontal, of the rod shaft
  • Mounting
  • How far and fast the rod will move
  • How frequent you intend to use it

Your criteria and project needs will determine the actuator you need. Ensure that you have as much information as possible before your purchase. With this information in mind, an experienced and licensed supplier can guide you through the process and help you purchase the right actuator for your project.

If it is your first time buying a linear actuator, it can be difficult to keep track of all the industry jargon— feel free to ask as many questions as you need.

Benefits of Buying a Linear Actuator

  • Easily integrable with electronic and motion control systems
  • Requires minimal maintenance and has a longer lifespan
  • Lower power requirements
  • Safety failure features
  • Often less noisy

Setbacks of Buying an Actuator

  • Potentially costly—make sure you review your available budget beforehand
  • Installation could require technical knowledge and be a lengthy process
  • May have a high load rating  

DIY: Building Your Linear Actuator

While building your homemade linear actuator would take into account several of the same considerations involved when buying one, it is an entirely different option. For many, the primary motivation behind DIY linear actuators is the reduced cost.

How to Build a Linear Actuator

While the exact process of building homemade linear actuators will depend on your specific goals, it will generally involve the following steps:

Acquire the needed materials and tools

You will need materials such as resin, a motor, M10 nuts and bolts, petroleum jelly, and more. Besides the material, you will also need tools such as a mallet, hacksaw, and a flathead screwdriver, among others. 

The exact tools and materials you will need will depend on your requirements and the project’s scope, and acquiring some of them could incur extra costs (make sure to take this into account when deciding to build or buy).

Make the drive coupling

There are three different types of drive couplings. The first is a rigid coupling. The main issue with this option is the friction and flexing caused if the shaft is misaligned.

The second type is a flexible drive coupling, which is the recommended option. Flexible couplings solve the issue of friction and flexing. You also have the option of purchasing a ready-made, flexible drive coupling.

Make the push arm

Make the base, motor mount bracket, and thrust bearing mount

When making the motor mount bracket, you might have to put washers under each screw’s head to prevent the screws from going in too far and distorting the motor casing.

Since the motor coupling is not built to transfer longitudinal force, the thrust bearing mount helps transfer the push rod’s force to the base without straining the motor coupling or the motor itself.

Add limit switching

Limit switches are micro-switches that have a lever arm and roller. Include an IN and OUT limit switch.

With the IN switch installed near the bearing mount, the OUT switch detects the push arm’s presence at a predetermined point from the IN switch. The location of that point depends on how far you want your rod to extend.

Attend to the wiring

The push and pull movement of the rod is made possible by reversing the polarity of the voltage you apply. When wiring your actuator, ensure that the wires you use have the thickness needed to carry the motor current. The wires should also be multi-strand to enable them to cope with the motor’s vibration.

You will need diodes to allow the limit switch to stop and drive the motor in the opposite direction. Mount the diodes on a prototype circuit board, which you will then screw to the base located under the coupling.

Though the diodes will often not carry current, they will still need to carry the motor’s starting current. 

Test your linear actuators performance

After you finish with the wiring, the next step is testing your actuator’s performance. Here, measure the time it takes for the actuator to retract and extend, trying it with various loads and different motor currents.

With homemade linear motion systems, every project is different and will come with unique challenges. These challenges could range from selecting the type of drive to installing the threaded rod and outer casing. You might even encounter situations that require technical skills beyond what you are capable of.

You’ll also need an appropriate workspace if the build requires you to heat PVC or use glue, which can produce toxic fumes. Never perform these actions in an unventilated space.

Benefits of Building an Actuator

  • Customization—you can build an actuator specific to your needs
  • Potentially less costly
  • Familiarity—buy building your own actuator, you’ll know how it works well enough to identify and rectify any problems yourself

Setbacks of Building an Actuator

  • Takes time and effort to do
  • Not as fast as buying an actuator
  • Could be an overwhelming and frustrating undertaking if you don’t have the necessary knowledge and skills
  • There’s always a chance it won’t work, and your time, effort, and funds will go to waste

Buy or Build a Linear Actuator: Which Option Should You Go For?

Whether it’s better to buy or go to the DIY route depends entirely on you, your skill level, available time, and acceptable risk level. 

If you’re still having trouble deciding, there is a three-point test you could implement to aid in your decision making. These are specific questions revolving around three main factors: time, expertise, and actual cost.

Weighing the time both options would take against your project’s urgency could help you determine which option better suits you. Looking at your available expertise will also help you gauge your ability to deliver your desired output if you were to build the actuator yourself.

The possibility of stumbling across problems during your DIY project adds several hidden costs that you might be unaware of initially. Looking at the project’s actual costs allows you to analyze how much purchasing the needed materials and tools and rectifying possible errors will cost you.

If you opt to buy your linear actuator, at Creative Motion Control, we help bring some of the advantages of a homemade actuator without any downsides. We combine great technology with exceptional customer support and service, delivering custom products capable of attaining unmatched performance and innovation.

Our designs and products firmly place us a leader in the linear motion control production industry. From engineering to manufacturing to sales, and delivery, we are here to serve you. Opt for the convenience a DIY linear actuator cannot provide. Reach out to Creative Motion Control and get a quote today.

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