Actuators & Controls

Gearboxes 101

Gears have a long history and have been used for many purposes throughout civilization. By starting with an initial source of motion and force, then combining that with intermediate gearing, engineers and designers throughout time have created functions that result in output of desired motion and force for purposes of performing many different functions. Many forms of gearboxes exist that incorporate different features, depending on the manufacturer. The intent of this article is to touch on a few and provide a generalized overview of gearbox function and features. (LEFT: One of the earliest uses for gears in an industrial situation was for mills. This is the  Glade Creek Grist Mill in Babcock State Park, WV.)


18 wnt gearboxes fig1Figure 1. The Antikythera mechanism fragmentThe earliest preserved gears in Europe were the Antikythera mechanisms, which go back as far as 150-100 BC. This gear was an intricate device designed to calculate astronomical positions (Figure 1). Gears appeared in China around 200-265 AD as a differential in a chariot, then as the drivers of the first mechanical clocks in 725 AD.

The first industrial mills appeared in Medieval Europe between 770-1443 AD. Grist mills, flax, saw and cotton mills all employed gears to convert input energy from waterwheels, wind blades or work animals into specific work.

18 wnt gearboxes fig2Figure 2. An early giant

The first patent for gear hobbing, the process of cutting gear teeth, was granted to the English inventor John Whitworth in 1835.

Throughout the industrial revolution and up to the present, gears have continued to serve a vital role in developing humankind’s methodologies for accomplishing tasks, and they continue to evolve and improve in the way they provide brute force as well as delicate positioning (Figures 2 and 3).

18 wnt gearboxes fig3Figure 3. A tinier model


Some of the forms of gears today include spur, helical, double helical, bevel, worm, epicyclic, rack and pinion. All of these gears are used for transmitting either rotary or linear motion, for multiplying force (torque being a rotary force), for increasing or decreasing rotational speed or for intricate position synchronization.

By definition, a gearbox is a set of gears within a casing. In the realm of actuation, that definition fits: a box (casing) contains gearing with the typical purpose of increasing the amount of input torque applied as an output to impart rotational movement.

Changes in rotational direction between the input and output of the gearbox and the number of rotations between the input and output are functions of the configuration of the gears and applied gear ratios. Products that require actuation and typically employ one form of gearbox or another include, but are not limited to: valves, slide gates, drum gates, dampers, skim troughs, and any other form of equipment that requires a rotational input to perform its intended function.

18 wnt gearboxes fig4Figure 4. HandwheelGearboxes can be operated either manually or coupled to an electric actuator. For manual operation, a handwheel or chainwheel acts as the means of input force into the gearbox (Figure 4). For gearboxes used with actuators, the actuator acts as the means of input torque. In that case, the gearbox increases the overall output torque of the combination and can covert a multi-turn electric actuator output to a quarter-turn output.

The advantage of coupling a gearbox with an electric actuator is an increase in output torque because of the mechanical advantage of the gearbox. This allows a cost-effective solution through use of a smaller electric actuator as compared to a stand-alone electric actuator of comparable torque output.

18 wnt gearboxes fig5Figure 5. Bevel gearboxGearboxes use different gears depending on the output needed and the direction of the output axis. One type of gearbox that accepts a multi-turn input and provides a multi-turn output is the bevel gearbox (Figure 5) because the internal gears are beveled gears. The output of the gearbox is located at 90 degrees from the input of the gearbox.

This type of gearbox also can incorporate a base to allow the acceptance of thrust that results from the actuation in a threaded rising stem design valve or gate. The threaded stem of the valve or gate mates with a removable output drive nut, which is machined to the same thread of the stem.

When the input shaft of the gearbox is turned, either manually or by electric actuation, the output drive nut is rotated in the same direction as the input rotation (as viewed from the top of the gearbox). This imparts linear movement of the threaded stem. The drive nut is housed in a hollow shaft of the gearbox, which is open to the atmosphere, allowing the threaded stem to pass through the gearbox for long linear stroke applications.

18 wnt gearboxes fig6Figure 6. Spur gearAnother form of gearbox that accepts a multi-turn input and provides a multi-turn output is a spur gear (Figure 6). This form of design incorporates internal gears and results in the output of the gearbox remaining in the same plane as the input of the gearbox. The spur gear has an overall larger envelope than a bevel gearbox because of the orientation of multiple spur gears needed to attain a mechanical advantage. The same linear movement of a threaded stem, possible thrust base and hollow shaft of the bevel gear can apply to the spur gear.

A worm gearbox accepts a multi-turn input and provides a partial turn output, typically a nominal 90-degree rotation. This type of gearbox is intended for quarter-turn valves such as butterfly, plug or ball valves, or dampers. The output connection is typically a removable splined coupling, bored and keyed to match the stem of the valve or damper.

A spline connection of the coupling within the gearbox allows available positioning increments of the gearbox based on the number of splines provided in the 360-degree connection. A spline connection is a -manufacturer-specific feature—not all gearboxes offer this method of connection to the operating stem. This eliminates the need for machining a special keyway position in the gearbox to accommodate the directional rotation needed between the open and closed positions of the valve. It also eliminates the mounting orientation of the gearbox needed when the stem bore and keyway have to be machined directly in the worm wheel of the gearbox. Integral position indication is provided by an adjustable pointer cover for the full-open and full-closed positions.

18 wnt gearboxes fig7Figure 7. Worm gearbox with leverOne variation of a worm gearbox is accomplished by adding a lever on the output drive and a mounting bracket to position the gearbox horizontally, a special configuration for damper applications that operate by a linkage connection (Figure 7).

Gearboxes are constructed to provide a mechanical advantage between the input and output force. For manual operation, this would be taking an achievable human-derived handwheel rim pull and increasing the force to an output torque capable of operating the intended device.

Over its life cycle, a gearbox is expected to face numerous harsh conditions without failure of the gears or compromise of the enclosure case. This is because failure of either of these components is simply unacceptable.


A number of common inherent properties of gearboxes are addressed differently by different manufacturers and can be considered when choosing the best overall gearbox for an application. All these properties are manufacturer specific.

Backlash is an inherent property of gears—in new gears, this results from the manufacturing process, and in existing gears, this results from wear. The amount of clearance existing between a gear tooth space and a mating gear tooth width represents the amount of backlash present. This is the amount that either of the mating gears can rotate while its mate is stationary. The greater the backlash, the less the ability to maintain a position. Manufacturers incorporate precise machining (hobbing) and tight tolerances to minimize gear backlash.

A desirable feature for gearboxes is a self-locking ability. This is the inability of the gear to be driven from the rotational output end of the gearbox. In other words, torque applied to the output of the gearbox will not result in operation of the gearbox, an action accomplished by the geometry of the gears.

Gearbox efficiencies or mechanical advantage in simplest form is the gearbox output torque divided by the gearbox input torque (with torque in the same units). As an example, in a gearbox incorporating two gears, the first gear would be a small diameter. This would result in a high transmission force at the gear teeth as Force=Input Torque divided by the gear pitch radius. A small radius results in larger force. The second gear would be a larger diameter than the first. Accepting the high transmission force from the first gear at the gear teeth results in force times the second gear pitch radius, which equals output torque. A large radius increases the force by multiplication, resulting in an overall increase of torque from input to output.

The number of turns is the required amount of gearbox input revolutions to equal one output revolution. Because the function of a gearbox is to increase the amount of input torque as an output to impart rotational movement, the employed gears typically follow the gearbox efficiency configuration mentioned above. By this configuration, the first gear, accepting the input, would be a small diameter and the second, providing the output, would be a larger diameter. A smaller input gear mating with a larger output gear results in an increased number of turns required at the input to provide one complete turn of the output. Typically, as the efficiency of a gearbox increases, so does the required number of input turns to equal one output turn. This results from further varying gear diameters or the addition of additional gears to provide an increase of the output torque while the input torque remains constant.


Various standards exist for different industries governing the construction and testing of gearboxes. This ensures the purchaser of a gearbox that the manufacturer meets a certain level of quality and aides in alleviating possible uncertainties for the basic integrity of a unit.

18 wnt gearboxes fig8Figure 8. Full alloy bronze worm gearStill, there remains aspects of construction that satisfy the standards, but differ between specific manufacturers. For example, the worm wheel of a worm gearbox can be made from either ductile iron or alloy bronze material. It also can be either segmented geometry or a full circular gear. A ductile iron or alloy bronze segment of a worm gear (providing the minimum surface of the gear to give 90-degree operation) may appear cost effective at initial purchase, but could result in elevated maintenance costs and loss of operational time because of the minimal design.

A full alloy bronze worm gear (Figure 8) can provide optimal operation, corrosion resistance and four times the life span of a segmented gear by having the ability to use four quadrants of the gear before requisitioning a replacement expenditure for a worm gear or complete replacement unit. The adjustable 90-degree stops are integral mechanisms activated by the turning of the worm shaft to be able to incorporate a full 360-degree worm wheel (this is a manufacturer specific design).


It’s up to the purchaser to define specifications and exact requirements. Careful consideration should be afforded to determine the best overall configuration for the application.

MARK BUJALSKI is an application specialist for AUMA Actuators Inc. Reach him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..