Mechanical linear actuators typically operate by conversion of rotary motion into linear motion. Conversion is commonly made via a few simple types of mechanism:
Screw: leadscrew, screw jack, ball screw and roller screw actuators all operate on the principle of the simple machine known as the screw. By rotating the actuator's nut, the screw shaft moves in a line.
Wheel and axle: Hoist, winch, rack and pinion, chain drive, belt drive, rigid chain and rigid belt actuators operate on the principle of the wheel and axle. A rotating wheel moves a cable, rack, chain or belt to produce linear motion.
Cam: Cam actuators function on a principle similar to that of the wedge, but provide relatively limited travel. As a wheel-like cam rotates, its eccentric shape provides thrust at the base of a shaft.
Some mechanical linear actuators only pull, such as hoists, chain drive and belt drives. Others only push (such as a cam actuator). Pneumatic and hydraulic cylinders, or lead screws can be designed to generate force in both directions.
Mechanical actuators typically convert rotary motion of a control knob or handle into linear displacement via screws and/or gears to which the knob or handle is attached. A jackscrew or car jack is a familiar mechanical actuator. Another family of actuators are based on the segmented spindle. Rotation of the jack handle is converted mechanically into the linear motion of the jack head. Mechanical actuators are also frequently used in the field of lasers and optics to manipulate the position of linear stages, rotary stages, mirror mounts, goniometers and other positioning instruments. For accurate and repeatable positioning, index marks may be used on control knobs. Some actuators include an encoder and digital position readout. These are similar to the adjustment knobs used on micrometers except their purpose is position adjustment rather than position measurement.