In today’s world, the emphasis on automation in the workplace has placed itself at the forefront. Improving productive output while optimizing cost efficiency allows companies to compete in aggressive and fluctuating markets. For the purposes of this article, we will focus on how to control and manipulate material handling systems, utilizing automation as much as possible. Electric linear actuators are a necessary and essential tool in achieving this.

Electric Linear Actuators: An Overview

The basis of electric actuators is that it relies on an electrical power source to begin turning a rotary head. When the rotary head begins turning, it drives a connecting linear shaft to push or pull an object. This described motion connection is achieved by a precisely designed gearbox and worm screw – or lead screw. Electric actuators’ main components are a motor, gearing with a lead screw, cylinder, and a limit switch. Further attachments and designing applications can be used such as a DC motor (this attachment will also need DC brushes). If the user wishes to have more stopping points along the travel path, then additional switches will be necessary.

Linear actuators come in various forms, but their essential responsibility is to move an object from point A to point B. Electromechanical actuators can also be combined with stopping positions along their stroke path. This adds more capability to the application. It is these capabilities of linear actuators that make them so imperative in modern-day automation, particularly within industrial settings.

Photo of a linear actuator by Progressive automations

Types of Actuators in Material Handling Systems

There are several types of actuators that can be seen in material handling systems, all working in conjunction with each other. Below are some popular examples of electric linear actuators that are seen in material handling systems.

Industrial Electric Actuators

Industrial electric actuators are built for larger applications in the industrial trade and are designed to be durable, with variable sizing if space constraints are present. Our industrial actuators have a force capacity of up to 3300 lbs, offering industries solutions for projects that would require this level of power. Our large electric actuators have high environmental protection ratings, enabling them to withstand dust, water, and harsh environments.

High-speed Electric Actuators

If productive throughput is a concern, a high-speed actuator could be required. High-speed electric actuators achieve higher placement speeds while maintaining durability and control placement accuracy. Electric linear actuators are proven to be the best solution for this; high-speed placement is difficult with hydraulic and pneumatic powered actuator systems due to their problematic control of energy flow and energy consumption cost. Cylinder electric actuators are designed to provide an extend or retract motion without momentum backlash, with the additional advantage of operating quietly.

Micro, Mini & Mid-Sized Electric Actuators:

In a more complex system, multiple actuators are utilized to achieve the task at hand. While industrial and high-speed actuators have obvious roles to play, smaller actuators roles may not be as evident. However, they have imperative roles in many areas when looking at a product’s journey through these systems.

The product is picked, travels, and dropped onto a conveyor after its barcode is scanned. A robot picks and places the product into a gripper on a slide. A sensor in the gripper is triggered and the gripper closes, holding the product in place. After the robot moves clear the slide travels from point A to point B, its extent. Once reaching that location it halts and a barcode scanner reads the product.

When verification of the barcode is complete, then the micro linear actuator that the gripper is mounted on is activated, extending the product in a perpendicular path. This micro linear actuator is now holding the product overtop of a conveyor.

The grippers open, dropping the package onto the conveyor. A simple configuration, but eludes to how multiple types of actuators can be used in conjunction with one another for material handling and other processes.

Photo of robots welding in a production line

Where are Electric Actuators Found in Material Handling Systems?

Providing a hands-off approach to material handling, electric actuators offer a possibility to move a product safely, securely, and accurately. When paired with sensors and other smart devices throughout a system, a previously tedious process can become extremely or totally hands-off. Electric actuators can be found throughout the material handling cycle in various applications such as conveying, sorting, feed systems, clamping, position control, and more. While remaining behind the scenes, electric actuators are a key player in efficiently moving product in any industry.

Lane changing on conveyor systems has traditionally been done with pneumatic actuators; however, this can have slow process control capabilities. With electric actuators, the response is almost instantaneous and the worry of controlling such a fluctuating energy source is not present. In cutting equipment, an electric actuator would be utilized to maneuver the cutting blade in a raised or lowered position. Here again, electric actuators would reign as the supreme choice over others.

Allowing for precise control of its energy source and immediate feedback allows for the cutting machine to have exact cut time and time again. In material handling, actuators are found everywhere and regarded as a key part of proper operation. A palletizing table to reduce the risk of safety concerns and raise and lower products for an employee would utilize an electric actuator. An automated palletizing wrapper would utilize multiple electric actuators of different sizes to complete its process.

Automated packaging systems utilize actuators to stack, un-stack, position, and center products for proper process completion. A controller, such as a programmable logic controller (PLC), would be needed to complete most of these mentioned automation processes.

Photo of robot working at a chocolate factory

In order to fully comprehend the role, an electric linear actuator can play in these systems; a full play-by-play example will be given:

At the end of a robot’s arm, it has a clamp fixture attached to it. Upon the press of a button, it is designed to move to Position A where a box will be located. A sensor is also present to assist with detection that a box is present.

Once it is present, the clamp will actuate, secure the box, and move back to Position B. Once relocated to Position B, the robot will unclamp and drop the box onto a conveyor system. The clamp revolves around precise and accurate control of an electromechanical linear actuator. It must always travel to set a position to grab the box but not damage it.

The linear actuator must also give proper feedback to communicate that it has reached its set limit. The clamp must also be maintained throughout the robot’s travel, so the box will not be dropped and damaged, or damage surrounding items or people. A hydraulic actuator would be messy with its hydraulic fluid power source. Both hydraulic and pneumatic energy sources can be tough to control precisely. To combat this, electric linear actuators would rely on a PLC for overall control.


Actuators offer solutions for a wide variety of processes in material handling with high accuracy, speed, reliability, and durability. Electric actuators are unrivaled in their ability to precisely control all the mentioned categories while still meeting customer’s budgetary constraints. Today’s world is changing constantly and moving at a rapid pace. With these tools, companies can move product, package, and ship to customers around the world at a swift pace.

Electromechanical actuators have numerous design capabilities to meet all application needs and can be met by Progressive Automations. If you are eager to learn more about these actuators and what they can do for you, please feel free to contact us.