How Hydraulic Cylinders Work

Hydraulic cylinders, also known as hydraulic rams, get their power from pressurized hydraulic fluid, normally hydraulic oil…

The hydraulic cylinder consists of a cylinder barrel, in which a piston connected to a piston rod moves back and forth. The barrel is closed on each end by the cylinder bottom (also called the cap end) and by the cylinder head where the piston rod comes out of the cylinder. The piston has sliding rings and seals. The piston divides the inside of the cylinder in two chambers, the bottom chamber (cap end) and the piston rod side chamber (rod end). The hydraulic pressure acts on the piston to do linear work and motion.

Flanges, trunnions, and/or clevisses are mounted to the cylinder body. The piston rod also has mounting attachments to connect the hydraulic cylinder to the object or machine component that it is pushing.

A hydraulic cylinder is the actuator or “motor” side of the system. The “generator” side of the hydraulic system is the hydraulic pump which brings in a fixed or regulated flow of oil to the bottom side of the hydraulic cylinder, to move the piston rod upwards. The piston pushes the hydraulic oil in the other chamber back to the reservoir. If we assume that the oil pressure in the piston rod chamber is approximately zero, the force on the piston rod equals the pressure in the hydraulic cylinder times the piston area (F=PA).

The piston moves downwards if oil is pumped into the piston rod side chamber and the hydraulic oil from the piston area flows back to the reservoir without pressure. The pressure in the piston rod area chamber is (Pull Force) / (piston area – piston rod area).

Parts of a Hydraulic Cylinder

A hydraulic cylinder (hydraulic actuator, hydraulic ram) consists of the following parts:

Cylinder Barrel: The cylinder barrel is mostly a seamless thick walled forged pipe that must be machined internally. The cylinder barrel is ground and/or honed internally.

Cylinder Bottom or Cap: In most hydraulic cylinders, the barrel and the bottom are welded together. This can damage the inside of the barrel if done poorly. Therefore some hydraulic cylinder designs have a screwed or flanged connection from the cylinder end cap to the barrel (see “Tie Rod Cylinders” below). In this type the cylinder barrel can be disassembled and repaired in future.

Cylinder Head: The cylinder head is sometimes connected to the barrel with a sort of a simple lock (for simple cylinders). In general however, the connection is screwed or flanged. Flange connections are the best, but also the most expensive. A flange has to be welded to the pipe before machining. The advantage is that the connection is bolted and always simple to remove. For larger hydraulic cylinder sizes, the disconnection of a screw with a diameter of 300 to 600 mm is a huge problem as well as the alignment during mounting.

Piston: The piston is a short, cylinder-shaped metal component that separates the two sides of the cylinder barrel internally. The piston is usually machined with grooves to fit elastomeric or metal seals. These seals are often O-rings, U-cups or cast iron rings. They prevent the pressurized hydraulic oil from passing by the piston to the chamber on the opposite side. This difference in pressure between the two sides of the piston causes the cylinder to extend and retract. Piston seals vary in design and material according to the pressure and temperature requirements that the hydraulic cylinder will see in service. Generally speaking, elastomeric seals made from nitrile rubber or other materials are best in lower temperature environments while seals made of Viton are better for higher temperatures. The best seals for high temperature are cast iron piston rings.

Piston Rod: The piston rod is typically a hard, chrome-plated piece of cold-rolled steel which attaches to the piston and extends from the cylinder through the rod-end head. In double rod-end hydraulic cylinders, the actuator has a rod extending from both sides of the piston and out both ends of the barrel. The piston rod connects the hydraulic actuator to the machine component doing the work. This connection can be in the form of a machine thread or a mounting attachment such as a rod-clevis or rod-eye. These mounting attachments can be threaded or welded to the piston rod or, sometimes, they are a machined part of the rod-end.

Rod Gland: The hydraulic cylinder head is fitted with seals to prevent the pressurized hydraulic oil from leaking past the interface between the rod and the head. This area is called the rod gland. It often has another seal called a rod wiper which prevents contaminants from entering the hydraulic cylinder when the extended rod retracts back into the cylinder. The rod gland also has a rod bearing. This bearing supports the weight of the piston rod and guides it as it passes back and forth through the rod gland. In some cases, especially in small hydraulic cylinders, the rod gland and the rod bearing are made from a single integral machined part.

A hydraulic cylinder should be used for pushing and pulling only. No bending moments or side loads should be transmitted to the piston rod or the cylinder. For this reason, the ideal connection of a hydraulic cylinder is a single clevis with a spherical ball bearing. This allows the hydraulic actuator to move and allow for any misalignment between the actuator and the load it is pushing.

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