What are drives and how do they work?

Drives are mechanisms that provide controlled motion to a machine. They convert rotational motion to linear motion or vice versa. Drives utilize power from an external source like an electric motor, internal combustion engine, or hydraulic system to provide torque and speed to an output shaft. This allows drives to start, stop, or adjust the speed and torque delivered to the driven load.

Types of Drives

There are several common types of drives used in various applications:

  • Gear drives: Use spur, helical, bevel, or worm gears to increase or decrease shaft speed and torque
  • Belt drives: Use v-belts, timing belts, or synchronous belts to transfer rotational power between pulleys
  • Chain drives: Use roller chain to connect sprockets and transfer power
  • Traction drives: Use friction between contacting surfaces to transmit torque
  • Wheel and axle: A simple drive that changes rotational speed based on wheel and axle diameters
  • Screw drives: Convert rotational motion to linear motion with screws and nuts
  • Hydraulic drives: Use pressurized hydraulic fluid to drive hydraulic motors
  • Pneumatic drives: Use pressurized air to power pneumatic air motors
  • Electric drives: Use an electric motor to provide precise speed and torque control

How Gear Drives Work

Gear drives utilize meshing spur, helical, bevel, or worm gears to increase or decrease shaft rotational speed, torque, and direction. The teeth of two mating gear wheels interlock and turn against each other to transfer power. Gear ratio determines the speed and torque change between the input and output. For example, a gear ratio of 2:1 means the output speed is half the input speed, while output torque is twice the input torque.

Spur gears have teeth parallel to the gear axis, while helical gears have angled teeth for smoother, quieter operation. Bevel gears have intersecting shafts with teeth cut at an angle. Worm gears use a screw that meshes with a toothed gear wheel for very high gear reductions.

Gears are compact and efficient at transmitting power. Different gear ratios can provide flexible speed and torque options from a fixed speed motor or engine power source. Gears need proper lubrication to reduce friction and wear. Gear drives are commonly used in machines, vehicles, and many other rotational power transmission applications.

How Belt Drives Work

Belt drives use friction between a flexible belt and rotating pulleys to transmit power and motion. Common types of belts include v-belts, timing belts, and synchronous belts. In a basic belt drive, a driver pulley is connected to the power source while a driven pulley is connected to the output. As the driver pulley rotates, friction adheres the belt to the pulley surfaces, causing the belt to move in unison.

This pulls the belt and rotates the driven pulley. Belts can drive larger pulleys for speed reduction or smaller pulleys for speed increases. Belt tensioners or idlers are often used to increase wrap angles and friction for improved torque transmission.

V-belts have angled wedges that increase grip and torque capacity. Timing belts have teeth that engage with grooves in the pulleys to provide precise positioning and velocity. Synchronous belts are used for precision applications requiring fixed speed ratios and low noise.

Belt drives are simple, efficient, and do not require lubrication. They can connect pulleys with parallel or non-parallel shafts. Belt drives are commonly used in conveyor systems, machine tools, copy machines, and automobile engine accessories.

How Chain Drives Work

Chain drives utilize roller chain wrapped around sprocket gears to transfer rotational motion and power. The chain consists of a series of articulated links held together by pin joints. As the driving sprocket rotates, teeth on the sprocket engage with holes in the chain links. This causes the chain to move around the sprocket path, transferring power to the driven sprocket.

The sprockets must have the proper number of teeth for the chain size to mesh correctly. Chain drives provide speed reduction from the driving sprocket to the larger driven sprocket. They can connect shafts at different speeds or distances without slippage. Chains require lubrication of the pins for smooth operation and long life.

Roller chain drives excel in dirty or slippery environments where belt drives would fail. They also maintain precise speed ratios between shafts. Chain drives are commonly used in bicycles, conveyors, agricultural machinery, and vehicle transmissions.

How Traction Drives Work

Traction drives, also called friction drives, transfer torque through friction between smooth rolling and sliding surfaces. In a basic traction drive, a driving cone, cylinder, or sphere contacts a driven cone, cylinder, or sphere. The components are pressed together with force to generate friction at the interface.

As the driver rotates, friction adheres the surfaces and causes the driven component to rotate. Traction drives provide simple speed reduction without gears or belts. Speed ratio is determined by the relative diameters of the driving and driven components.

Common types of traction drives include Perbury drives and variators. Perbury drives use a ring that rolls between a fixed outer ring and rotating inner hub. Variators use adjustable cones or spheres that can alter speed ratios while running.

Traction drives are compact, run smoothly without noise, and do not require lubrication. They are capable of infinite speed ratios. Drawbacks include low torque capabilities and power losses from friction heat generation.

How Wheel and Axle Drives Work

A wheel and axle is one of the simplest drives, converting torque into speed. It consists of a larger wheel rigidly attached to a smaller axle shaft. Power from a source like a hand crank or motor rotates the axle. The rotational speed of the axle is faster than the wheel speed due to their differing diameters.

As the radius increases from the axle to the outer wheel, the speed decreases proportionally. The wheel provides a mechanical advantage based on the ratio of axle diameter to wheel diameter, generating greater torque at slower rotational speeds.

For example, if the wheel diameter is five times the axle diameter, the torque at the wheel will be five times the torque at the axle. At the same time, the rotational speed of the wheel will be one fifth of the axle speed.

Wheel and axle drives are simple and inexpensive. They are commonly used in hand drills, screwdrivers, windlasses, and automotive axles.

How Screw Drives Work

Screw drives convert rotational motion into linear motion using screw and nut mechanisms. The key components are the leadscrew that provides the driving force, and the nut that converts the rotation into linear translation.

As the leadscrew rotates, the nut is driven along the screw in a linear direction. Ball screws use recirculating balls between the screw and nut to improve efficiency compared to sliding friction in plain screw drives. Leadscrew pitches typically range from 0.5 to 50 mm.

The lead is the linear distance the nut travels per screw revolution. Fine leads allow more precise positioning but slower linear speeds, while coarse leads provide higher speeds but less accuracy. Acme screws are commonly used for quiet operation and self-locking abilities.

Screw drives are used for linear actuation and positioning in factory automation machines, precision machines like lathes and mills, robotic arms, and aircraft flaps and controls.

How Hydraulic Drives Work

Hydraulic drives convert hydraulic fluid pressure and flow into rotational mechanical power. A hydraulic pump pressurizes the fluid from a reservoir and distributes it through hydraulic lines. Valves regulate the flow to hydraulic motors or cylinders at an actuator.

As pressurized fluid flows into the motor, it pushes against vanes in the motor causing rotation. Hydraulic motors provide high levels of torque at variable speeds by controlling the fluid flow. Gear or piston pumps can be used with various hydraulic fluids and pressures up to 5000 psi.

Hydraulic drives have high power density, readily deliver both speed and torque, and provide smooth speed regulation. Applications include heavy equipment like excavators, cranes, lifts, and presses where high power and tunable speed are critical.

How Pneumatic Drives Work

Pneumatic drives use pressurized air to supply power. An air compressor takes in ambient air, pressurizes it, and distributes it through lines and hoses. The compressed air goes through valves to a pneumatic air motor or cylinder that converts it into rotary or linear motion.

As high-pressure air pushes into an air motor, it impinges against vanes causing air motor rotation. Piston motors use the air pressure to move internal pistons. Precision speed control is achieved by regulating the air flow with valves.

Pneumatic systems are clean, readily available, and do not require much maintenance. Pneumatic drives are safe to use around combustible materials since compressed air is inert. They are commonly used to power machine actuators, clamps, and grippers in factory automation.

How Electric Drives Work

Electric drives convert electrical energy into mechanical torque and motion using an electric motor. Motors contain rotors surrounded by stators that create electromagnetic fields when energized. Interactions between rotor and stator magnetic fields produce rotation and torque output.

AC induction motors are commonly used with variable frequency drives that control speed and torque by varying motor input frequency and voltage. Servo motors utilize position feedback for precision speed and position control. Stepper motors provide open-loop position control for intermittent motion.

Electric drives have excellent speed and torque response characteristics. They are used extensively in industrial and manufacturing automation, robots, machine tools, printing presses, conveyors, HVAC systems, and computer peripherals.

Drive Selection Considerations

Key factors to consider when selecting a mechanical drive include:

  • Speed and torque requirements
  • Overload and shock load capacity
  • Drive efficiency and power losses
  • Environment and operating conditions
  • Maintenance needs
  • Space constraints
  • Costs

Engineers evaluate these parameters against the capabilities of different drive types to select the optimal solution for an application. Speed reducers like gears or chain drives may be needed for speed control. Additional components like clutches, brakes, couplings, and torque limiters help enhance drive system performance.

Advantages of Mechanical Drives

Mechanical drives offer several advantages that make them critical components of widespread machinery and applications:

  • Speed and torque conversion from motors and engines
  • Compact transmission and control of power
  • Efficiency at converting rotation to linear motion
  • Ability to start, stop, or adjust output motion
  • Precise speed regulation and positioning capabilities
  • Overload and shock load protection
  • Long service life with proper maintenance

By leveraging unique attributes of gears, belts, chains, screws, pneumatics, hydraulics, and electrics, engineers can develop optimized drive solutions for a broad range of industrial, manufacturing, automation, robotics, aircraft, vehicle, and power transmission needs.


Drives utilize power sources like motors and engines to provide controlled torque and movement to machines. Different types of drives like gears, belts, chains, wheels and axles, screws, hydraulics, pneumatics, and electrics convert and transmit speed, torque, and direction based on their specific mechanical advantages. Drives are critical components that allow operational control of machinery and provide flexibility in meeting dynamic speed, torque, overload, and precision motion requirements.