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Programming an Actuator: What You Should Know

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Actuators are central to many modern applications. Yet, these devices perform a rather simple tax of changing commands into actions. You’ll see them in industrial machines, home automation, and robotics, to name a few, and many are smart devices that use codes.

So, like a computer requires correct coding to function effectively, an actuator relies on precise programming to operate optimally. Here, we’ll discuss all the essentials of actuator programming, including the methods and best practices.

Basics of Actuator Programming

Before you start programming actuators, you should have a comprehensive grasp of the operating parameters. Motion devices are of different types, depending on the design and purpose. Similarly, they possess specific limits regarding speed, force, and traveling range. These limits are important to note to avoid overloading or damaging the device.

Another critical aspect is the control interface, a middleman between the user’s commands and the actuator’s actions. Some interfaces are simple wired controllers, while more advanced ones employ complex wireless or software-based platforms. For your programming, you have to pick the appropriate control interface. That’ll depend on the application and level of automation you aim for.

Furthermore, modern motion devices often come with dedicated software platforms. That’s an advantage, as it makes programming more accessible. In particular, these software solutions let you control and monitor the actuator’s performance in real time. It’s just like using any other program on your PC or app on your smartphone.

Selecting a Control System

Previously, we highlighted the importance of the control interface. Now, let’s discuss how you can choose the most appropriate control system. First, note that it largely hangs on your project and functions. Nevertheless, check out the different options you can use below:

  • Microcontrollers

Devices like Arduino and Raspberry Pi are popular with enthusiasts and professionals alike. They’re versatile, which means they accommodate a wide range of libraries. As a result, they’re ideal for custom applications, whether simple linear movements or intricate patterns. The extensive online communities surrounding these platforms further offer helpful information. So, if you’re new to actuator programming, you can easily find instructions on what to do.

  • Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs)

For industrial applications or projects that demand high reliability, PLCs are typically the go-to option. These control systems can operate in harsh conditions, including those with significant temperature variations or electrical noise. They’re robust in performance, and you’ll often find them within larger control systems. One of their main advantages is that they can manage multiple actuators and other components seamlessly.

  • HMI Screens

Human-machine interface (HMI) screens provide an intuitive way of controlling and monitoring actuators. They’re touch-enabled, so you can initiate commands, visualize movements, and get real-time feedback. An ideal situation where you’ll need HMIs is in applications that demand real-time adjustments. You can also leverage them when the system needs to be user-friendly. So, they help people without in-depth technical knowledge.

Linking the Actuator to the Control System

The next stage in programming is to connect the motion device to the control system. Here, there’s no room for errors. It should be done properly and securely.

To start, you need the correct cables and connectors for your actuator model. These wires are what transmit commands from the control system to the actuator and, in some cases, feedback from the actuator back to the system. Ensure each terminal matches the control system’s specifications. 

It’s good practice to route cables away from any moving parts or other potential interference sources. That’ll ensure a clean and uninterrupted signal as the motion device operates. Note that any mismatch can result in performance issues or, worse, damage. If you’re confused, simply use the manufacturer’s guide. 

Writing the Code: The Actual Programming

For actuator programming, your control system will determine the coding language to employ. If you’re using microcontrollers like Arduino, C or C++ is the typical programming language. Arduino platforms usually come with ready-to-use libraries, so the control process is much easier. For instance, in C++, you can dictate actuator movements with simple commands.

Suppose you set up your project on the Raspberry Pi platform. In that case, Python is the preferred coding language. Python has expansive libraries with some tailored for actuators. Hence, you get many preset options for precise control.

Programmable Logic Controllers take a different route. Here, ladder logic or structured text is the standard. Nevertheless, they’re still advantageous as they guarantee a visual and intuitive programming experience.

Finally, if you’re using HMIs, then, you don’t need to do much. Such control systems come with proprietary software platforms that are more or less visual programming tools. So, you get to define actions and commands using a user-friendly interface.

Set the Control Parameters and Test the Actuator 

To achieve optimal performance with your programming, you must set precise control parameters. Afterward, you perform a thorough test. Only after completing these last two steps can you be confident that the device will work accordingly.

These are the key parameters you have to define: 

  • Speed: It’s crucial to specify how fast the actuator will extend and retract. You can easily adjust this parameter from the software interface or directly within the firmware. 
  • Position: Here, you should use sensor feedback to place limits on the actuator position. Usually, the software or controller will support values in terms of distance (like millimeters) or angles. It all depends on the actuator type.
  • Force/Torque: This parameter is important to ensure the motion device doesn’t apply excessive force. Hence, it preserves the actuator and systems that rely on it.
  • Feedback Mechanisms: You should include feedback loops in your programming. Leverage them to obtain real-time data. With that, you can achieve dynamic adjustments so the actuator always runs within the set parameters.

Testing the Actuator

Confirming that your programming setup works is rather straightforward. First, create a controlled environment. Here, you’ll want to exclude any variable affecting the actuator’s performance. Then, run the actuator at full capacity and confirm if it operates smoothly. Check for any discrepancies between the programmed parameters and actual performance. 

It also helps to subject the actuator to somewhat extreme conditions. While this tests the boundaries, it also helps identify potential weak points. So you can spot areas that need improvement in the programming. Ensure you gather data during the testing process for further analysis.


Programming an actuator is a relatively technical process. Nevertheless, you can handle it with less difficulty using the right instructions. The information presented on this page should serve as a workable guide.