What are hard drive arms made of?

Hard drive arms, also known as actuator arms or read/write heads, are crucial components in hard disk drives (HDDs) that allow data to be read from and written to the hard drive platters. They are made out of lightweight and sturdy materials that can precisely and quickly move across the platters to access data.

What is the function of hard drive arms?

Hard drive arms have read/write heads mounted on their tips that scan over the spinning hard drive platters to magnetically read and write data. They swing very rapidly and precisely across the platters to access data in different tracks and sectors. Their key functions include:

  • Moving across platters to read and write data in specific locations
  • Providing rapid and accurate movements to quickly access data
  • Delicately interacting with platter surfaces to read/write data via magnetic heads
  • Withstanding constant and rapid motion over years of use
  • Allowing data density by precisely positioning heads in narrow tracks

By rapidly moving head arms to the correct track and sector, hard drives can access any piece of data stored on the platters in just milliseconds.

Why are lightweight materials ideal?

Hard drive arms need to be made of very lightweight, rigid materials so they can move at high speeds with precision. Lighter arms allow faster access times, quicker response, and more precise control. This enables higher data densities by allowing narrower tracks.

Some key reasons lightweight arm materials are ideal include:

  • Lower mass means faster acceleration and deceleration
  • Faster arm motion reduces data access latency
  • Lightweight arms place less strain on motors and bearings
  • Precise control over delicate head positioning
  • Enables narrow track widths for increased data density

By using lighter arm materials, drives can achieve faster seeks, lower power consumption, and optimized data storage densities.

What materials are commonly used?

Early hard drive arms were made of heavy metals like aluminum, stainless steel or cast iron. But ongoing innovations have led to the use of much lighter and stronger materials. Here are some of the most common modern hard drive arm materials:


Beryllium is one of the lightest metals available, with high rigidity and mechanical stability. This makes it ideal for short, rigid arms that move quickly and precisely. It has excellent dimensional stability over temperature changes.

Aluminum Alloys

Aluminum alloys like AlMgSiO are very lightweight, stiff and durable. They are often used when longer arms are needed to reach across wider platters. They have good fatigue strength and are resistant to oxidation.

Magnesium Alloys

Magnesium alloys provide the best strength-to-weight ratio of common metals. Grades like AZ31B have excellent strength, stiffness, machinability and damping. Damping reduces vibrations that could affect head positioning.

Engineered Plastics

Advanced engineered plastics like carbon fiber reinforced polymers provide high stiffness with very low weight. The composite materials are stiff, strong and resistant to fatigue. They allow longer arms with less mass.


Ceramic materials have extreme hardness and stiffness while being very light. Silicon nitride, silicon carbide and zirconia ceramics have been used for their high strength, low density, and resistance to heat and wear.

How are the arms manufactured?

Hard drive arms are manufactured through various methods depending on the material used. Here are some common manufacturing processes:


Used to produce aluminum arms. Molten aluminum is poured into a mold and allowed to solidify. The casting is then machined to final tolerances.


Beryllium and magnesium arms may be produced by extruding billets of material through a die to create desired shapes.


CNC machining is used to cut arms from blocks of material. Precision tools shape the arms to extremely tight tolerances.

Injection molding

Thermoplastics like liquid crystal polymer can be injected into molds to form lightweight plastic arms of high precision.

3D printing

Additive manufacturing techniques like selective laser sintering are utilized for low volume production of complex shaped plastic or metal arms.

Composite layup

Carbon fiber composites are made by layering prepreg sheets. These are cured in a mold to produce lightweight, rigid arms.

What factors influence arm design?

Engineers consider many aspects when designing hard drive arms, including:

  • Rigidity – Arms must resist bending and twisting that could affect head positioning.
  • Resonance – Natural resonant frequencies that cause vibrations are minimized.
  • Aerodynamics – Shape is optimized to move smoothly through the air inside the drive.
  • Fatigue life – Arms endure years of repetitive motion without failure.
  • Precision – Ultra-precise movements and position control are enabled.

By optimizing these factors, arms can maximize performance, speed, and reliability within the hard drive.

How are heads attached to the arms?

Read/write heads are attached to the ends of the actuator arms to read and write data. There are a few main methods used to attach the heads:


The arm may have a tapered hole that heads are inserted into. Pressure swages (squeezes) the hole tightly around the head to hold it in place.

Through-hole soldering

The head has a pin that inserts through a hole in the arm. Solder applied from the other side bonds them together.


Epoxy or cyanoacrylate adhesive can permanently attach the head to the arm end. This provides high shear and tensile strength.


Small specialized screws are used to clamp the head tightly to the arm. Screws allow head replacement if needed.

Insert molding

For plastic arms, the head can be placed into the injection mold. Liquid plastic molded around it permanently joins the components.

Press fitting

An interference fit between the head and arm creates a strong friction bond when pressed together.

Quality control and testing

To ensure reliable performance, manufactured arms undergo stringent quality control and testing procedures. These include:

  • Dimensional analysis – precise optical and contact measurements verify precision tolerances are met.
  • Resonant frequency testing – identifies and eliminates natural resonant frequencies.
  • Strain gauge testing – measures stresses and deformations under load.
  • Life testing – arms are tested for thousands of hours to verify fatigue life.
  • Particle count – cleanroom assembly ensures no contaminant particles to cause head crashes.

By verifying quality at each stage, manufacturers ensure arms will withstand years of rigorous service.

Evolution of hard drive arm designs

Hard drive arms have evolved considerably over decades of technological progress including:

1970s – Cast aluminum arms a few inches long
1980s – Magnesium alloys enable faster positioning
1990s – Lightweight bent sheet arms to access larger platters
2000s – Shorter arms using beryllium and exotic alloys
2010s – Multi-stage and nested arms allow narrow tracks
2020s – Extremely short precision arms with microactuators

Future advances will focus on optimizing arm mass and rigidity as areal densities continue increasing. Newer arm designs also compensate for minute vibrations and external disturbances with advanced control systems.


In summary, hard drive arms have evolved into highly advanced mechanical components designed for speed, precision, and reliability. Very lightweight and stiff materials such as beryllium, exotic alloys, engineered plastics, and composites enable the split-second positioning accuracy required. Ongoing research improves designs to increase data access speeds and capacities even further.