Rotary Actuators : Types, Working Principles, Applications & Advantages

Rotary actuators are electromechanical devices that provide precise rotational or oscillating motion to control valves, dampers, stages, arms and other mechanisms. This guide provides a deep dive into different types of rotary actuators, their working principles, components, specifications, applications, selection criteria, installation and maintenance procedures.

What is a Rotary Actuator?

A rotary actuator converts energy into precise rotational or oscillating motion to rotate a shaft connected to the actuator. It positions and controls devices like valves, dampers, solar panels, feeders, and more by rotating them through a desired angle or continuously oscillating them.

Rotary actuators provide torque and movement using pneumatic, hydraulic or electric power. They offer accurate position control and high torque in a compact package.

Rotary Actuator diagram

How Does a Rotary Actuator Work?

A rotary actuator consists of a motor and gear train enclosed in a casing. When power is supplied, the motor rotates. This motion gets transmitted via gears or other mechanisms to rotate the output shaft of the actuator.

The shaft is connected to the device that needs to be rotated like a valve. A controller measures the rotation angle using feedback sensors and stops the motor when the desired position is reached.

Rack and pinion, vane, piston and other mechanisms convert the motor’s motion into precise rotational movement of the shaft. The actuator output can go from 0 to 345° or even full 360° rotation.

Applications of Rotary Actuators

Rotary actuators are used for precise positioning in various motion control applications:

  • Valve Actuation – Positioning isolation, control, modulating valves in pipelines.
  • Damper Control – Controlling airflow in HVAC systems by positioning dampers.
  • Solar Tracking – Moving solar panels to track sun for maximum solar energy harvest.
  • Machinery Automation – Flaps, clamps, jaws, stages in packaging, printing, CNC machines.
  • Robotics – Providing shoulder, arm, wrist motion in industrial robots.
  • Medical Systems – Patient chair positioning, adjustable hospital beds, CT scanner rotation.
  • Aviation – Controlling flaps for takeoff and landing procedures.
  • Marine – Controlling rudders, deck equipment like winches and cranes offshore.

Types of Rotary Actuators

Rotary actuators are categorized based on their power source:

Types of Rotary Actuator

1. Pneumatic Rotary Actuators

Powered by compressed air. Provide high torque in compact size. No electricity needed on-site. Low maintenance. Used for quarter-turn valves or oscillations.


  • Rack and Pinion – Compact with high torque density
  • Vane – Higher speeds, lower torque than rack and pinion
  • Piston – Oscillating movement for butterfly valves
  • Diaphragm – Lower torque, higher speeds

2. Hydraulic Rotary Actuators

Use pressurized hydraulic oil for power. For high torque heavy-duty applications. Hold position in case of power failure. Used offshore and remote areas.


  • Rack and Pinion – High force output and accurate position control
  • Vane – Compact size with high speeds
  • Piston – Oscillating motion, used in large valves
  • Gear – High speeds, low cost, low duty cycles

3. Electric Rotary Actuators

Powered by electricity. Precise speed and position control with advanced features. Used where power is easily available.


  • AC Motors: Brushed DC, Brushless DC, Servo, Stepper, Induction
  • DC Motors: Brushed, Brushless, Servo
  • Piezo Motors – Extreme precision motions
  • Shape Memory Alloys – Compact solid-state actuators

Electric actuators offer the most control flexibility but need electrical infrastructure on-site.

Main Components of a Rotary Actuator

A rotary actuator consists of the following main components:

  • Housing – Protects internal parts from dust and moisture. Made of aluminum, stainless steel or plastic.
  • Output Shaft – The final controlled output that rotates the connected device. Made of alloy steel or stainless steel.
  • Seals – Prevent leakage of air or fluid. Usually O-rings, lip seals or gland packing.
  • Bearings – Allow low-friction shaft rotation. Ball bearings or sleeve bearings.
  • Motor – Provides the motive force for rotation. Pneumatic, hydraulic or electric.
  • Gears – Convert motor power into torque. Made of steel, plastic or reinforced polymers.
  • Couplings – Connect shafts together. Flexible couplings compensate for misalignment.
  • Controller – Regulates power to motor. Controls position and speed.
  • Feedback Sensor – Encoder, resolver or potentiometer to measure angular position.

Key Specifications of Rotary Actuators

Rotary actuators are selected based on key performance specifications and requirements:

  • Torque – Turning force in Nm. Dictates size of loads that can be driven.
  • Speed – Angular velocity in degrees/sec or rpm. Time to reach position.
  • Angle – Total rotation angle from 0 to 90, 180, 270 or 360 degrees.
  • Accuracy – How precisely it attains commanded position.
  • Repeatability – Ability to return to same angle repeatedly.
  • Temperature – Operating temp range based on environment.
  • Protection Rating – IP grade for dust and water resistance.
  • Voltage – AC or DC voltage if electrically powered.
  • Duty Cycle – Percentage of time powered on during operation.
  • Mounting – Vertical or horizontal orientation. Mounting flange size and shape.
  • Communication Interface – Analog, fieldbus, industrial ethernet for control.

How Do Pneumatic Rotary Actuators Work?

Pneumatic actuators use compressed air to produce rotary motion. The air is fed into the actuator through inlet ports and exerts force on internal vanes, pistons or a rack and pinion.

This force gets converted into torque through levers, gears or helical pinions to rotate the output shaft. Exhaust air escapes through outlet ports.

The angular position is controlled by regulating the air flow using solenoid valves or servo valves. Encoders provide position feedback. The shaft rotation can be 0-90° or 180° to 270°.

Pneumatic actuators offer high torque density, low maintenance and suit outdoor areas without electric power. But need compressed air supply infrastructure on-site.

How Do Hydraulic Rotary Actuators Work?

Hydraulic rotary actuators operate using pressurized hydraulic fluid provided by a pump and reservoir. The fluid enters through an inlet port into chambers or pistons.

The pressure generates force which gets converted into torque through helical gears or rack and pinion to rotate the output shaft. Hydraulic fluid returns back through the outlet port.

Flow control valves regulate the fluid pressure to attain precise position control of the shaft angle. Position sensors provide feedback to the controller.

Hydraulic actuators provide very high torque output in heavy industries like mining, offshore, construction etc. But require hydraulic systems and maintenance.

How Do Electric Rotary Actuators Work?

In electric actuators, a brushed or brushless motor rotates when power is supplied. The gearhead converts high-speed low-torque motor output into low-speed high-torque rotation.

Gears like spur, bevel, worm and planetary gears increase the torque through gear reduction. The rotational output drives the actuator’s shaft which is connected to the device being actuated.

For precise position control, the motor is controlled via drivers or variable frequency drives. Encoders give position feedback to the controller. Servo motors offer the best speed and torque control.

Electric actuators need an external power supply but give the most flexibility and accuracy. Motor, drives and controllers compensate for varying loads.

Rotary Actuator

Pros and Cons of Rotary Actuators


  • Generate high torque in a compact package.
  • Variable speed control for optimal motion.
  • Precise and accurate positioning capability.
  • Rugged, outdoor and explosion proof models exist.
  • Offer longer service life with minimal maintenance.


  • Limited angle of shaft rotation up to 270°. Not full 360° rotation.
  • Electric models need power infrastructure on-site.
  • Hydraulic types need external hydraulic pump systems.
  • Not suitable for applications with sudden impact or shock loads.
  • Require expert sizing and selection of optimal model.

How to Select a Rotary Actuator

Consider these factors when selecting a rotary actuator:

  • Torque – Size actuator to generate sufficient torque for the driven load. Add safety factor.
  • Speed – Ensure actuator speed meets the motion requirements. Slow for higher torque.
  • Angle – Standard quarter turn or multi-turn options. Match full device rotation.
  • Temperature – Construction material should suit ambient temps.
  • Protection Rating – IP65 or higher for dust and outdoor use.
  • Voltage – 24V DC common. 110/230VAC options exist.
  • Communication Interface – Modern types offer fieldbus and Ethernet.
  • Service Factor – Size actuator for 1.5x estimated torque for reliability.
  • Budget – Higher precision and features increase costs. Balance needs.

Consult datasheets and size properly to prevent under or oversizing the rotary actuator.

Best Practices for Installation

Follow these guidelines for proper installation of rotary actuators:

  • Read manual thoroughly before installation.
  • Mount vertically upright or horizontally as designed. Improper orientation can lead to leaks and reduced life.
  • Ensure good airflow around actuator to prevent overheating.
  • Fasten the actuator securely using all housing bolts. Do not distort housing.
  • Support connected shafts with bearings if required to prevent shaft damage.
  • Use flexible couplings between actuator and device shafts.
  • Align the shafts precisely within coupling tolerances for smooth torque transfer.
  • Provide any special filters, gauges for optimal functioning.
  • Connect electric power, air or hydraulic supply lines securely.
  • Confirm that electronics wiring is as per specified standards.
  • Carry out test runs and commissioning before regular operation.

Maintenance Tips for Rotary Actuators

Regular maintenance is vital for rotary actuators to function optimally over their service lifetimes.

  • Inspect actuators periodically for external damage, leaks, loose bolts.
  • Check temperature and vibration levels during operation. Investigate any abnormalities.
  • Keep the actuator clean by wiping dust and grime. Remove any debris buildup.
  • Lubricate bearings, seals and gears as scheduled. Avoid under or over lubrication.
  • Inspect seals, gaskets, O-rings. Replace if worn out to prevent leaks.
  • Check for water/moisture ingress in pneumatic/hydraulic actuators. Damage can occur.
  • Monitor backlash, limping, unusual noise as signs of internal wear and tear.
  • Analyze feedback signals to check for position deviations or response lags.
  • Overhaul or rebuild internal parts that are worn out if economic. Else replace fully.
  • Record hours of operation, downtime, maintenance logs for analysis.

Routine maintenance enhances lifespan, reduces breakdowns and lowers lifetime costs.

Troubleshooting Rotary Actuator Problems

Here are solutions for common rotary actuator failures:

No/Insufficient Torque

  • Low supply pressure for pneumatic/hydraulic types
  • Excessive load inertia/friction
  • Internal air leakage
  • Worn/damaged internal components and gears

Leaking Fluid/Air

  • Worn seals and gaskets
  • External damage
  • Loose port connections
  • Shaft seal wear

Excessive Vibration/Noise

  • Misalignment between actuator and driven load
  • Bearing wear
  • Resonance near operating speed
  • Loose mounting bolts
  • Gear wear

Position Deviation

  • Feedback sensor malfunction
  • Loose mechanical linkage
  • Inadequate torque due to wear
  • Program logic errors
  • Gear wear causing backlash


  • Inadequate heat dissipation
  • High duty cycle operation
  • Low lubrication
  • Excessive ambient temperature

No Power

  • Electric circuit problems
  • Burnt motor
    -Broken supply lines

Adequate maintenance and annual health checks prevent most failures. Replace damaged components immediately.

Repair and Overhaul of Rotary Actuators

Minor rotary actuator repairs involve:

  • Replacing worn seals and bearings
  • Patching external leaks
  • Tightening loose mounting bolts
  • Clearing blocked air passages

Major repairs involve teardown and rebuilding internal parts:

  • Disassemble actuator and inspect internal gears, vanes, pistons etc.
  • Replace any damaged components like gears, seals, shafts.
  • Refurbish parts like housings if feasible.
  • Reassemble with new lubrication.
  • Test thoroughly before putting back into operation.

Repair costs can be high. Beyond economical repair limits, it is advisable to just replace the entire actuator.

Recent Trends and Innovations

Rotary actuators continue to evolve with new trends:

  • Higher Power Density – More torque and power in smaller sizes.
  • Improved Position Accuracy – High resolution encoders, non-contact feedback sensors.
  • Modular Design – Combining drive, controller and interfacing in one unit.
  • Smart Actuators – Inbuilt monitoring, diagnostics, and networking connectivity.
  • Stainless Steel – Better corrosion resistance in harsh environments.
  • Bus Protocols – Fieldbus and industrial ethernet integration for communications.
  • servomotors – High dynamic performance with variable speeds.
  • Solid State – Compact PZT piezoelectric and SMA based actuators.

The future points to “smart” integrated rotary actuators with advanced position control, prognostics and self-monitoring capabilities.

Comparison of Rotary Actuator Technologies

Torque OutputMediumVery HighLow to Medium
SpeedMediumHighVery High
AccuracyMediumMediumVery High
Control FlexibilityLowMediumHigh
Position FeedbackPossiblePossibleStandard
Environment ResistanceHighHighLow
Power InfrastructureCompressed AirHydraulic Oil SupplyElectric Supply
Operating CostsLowHighMedium
SuitabilityQuarter-Turn Valves, Intermittent DutyHigh Power Continuous DutyPrecision Motion Control

FAQs about Rotary Actuators

Q: What is the typical torque range of rotary actuators?

A: Torque ranges from 10 Nm to 68,000 Nm depending on the technology and size. Pneumatic actuators offer 10-7000 Nm, hydraulic up to 68,000 Nm, and electric types 100 to 15,000 Nm torque.

Q: What are the maximum rotation angles possible with rotary actuators?

A: Most rotary actuators offer a maximum shaft rotation between 90° to 270°. Custom models with gearing can achieve full 360° rotation. Rack and pinion pneumatic types usually give quarter turn 90° rotation.

Q: What position accuracy is achievable with rotary actuators?

A: Electric servomotor-based actuators offer the highest accuracy and repeatability of ±0.1° or better. Pneumatic and hydraulic types usually range from ±0.5° to ±2° accuracy.

Q: What are the major application areas for rotary actuators?

A: Valve actuation, solar tracking, damper control, aircraft flaps, medical equipment, robotics, agricultural machinery, ATMs, and maritime applications like offshore cranes.

Q: What causes rotary actuators to leak fluid or air?

A: Internal leaks are usually due to worn seals, O-rings and gaskets. External leaks can occur from damaged hoses, broken ports or housing cracks. Poor installation allowing dirt ingress can also cause leaks over time.

Q: How to determine the right torque capacity for an application?

A: Multiply the driven load inertia by acceleration required and add a 25-50% safety factor. Friction loads also need consideration. Oversizing is preferred to operate the actuator within its limits.

Q: What is backlash in a rotary actuator?

A: Backlash or play refers to the rotation gap that occurs when direction changes due to internal clearances between components. It causes inaccuracy and is minimized by high precision gear manufacturing.

This comprehensive guide covers all aspects of rotary actuator types, designs, working principles, specifications, applications, installation and maintenance in detail. Please feel free to reach out for any additional queries.

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