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Understanding Gear Reduction

By Brett "Buzz" Dawson


Team DaVinci Robotics

First off, let me explain that gear reduction in the context of this help section refers to
speed reduction in general whether it be by traditional gear, chain and sprocket, or belts. The
goal of this section is to give anyone a basic understanding of what gear reduction is and how
it can be used to help give an idea on how to implement it in a robot. Because there are
different areas in a robot that could benefit from gear reduction we will focus on the most
important one, the drive train. And, we will talk only about DC electric motors but the
fundamental can be applied to other motors as well.

The reason that we need to know about gear reduction is because the output speed of a
motor is usually too fast for normal use. Most DC motors at normal operating voltages spin at
well over 1,000 rpm (revolutions per minute) and some even as high at 50,000 rpm for
brushless DC motors. If we had a motor than spun at say, 3,000 rpm, and we attached a 6
inch wheel to it then the wheel would theoretically be able to move the bot at almost 54 miles
per hour! That is way too fast to control in an arena due to other considerations that wouldn't
happen but we'll get into that later. So we need to reduce the rate at which the wheel spins so
that we get a robot that we can at least control. Hint, the quick way of determining the speed
of a wheel is to multiply the diameter (in inches) of the wheel by the rpm and divide the
result by 336 (or for a really close figure use 336.13523981).

What is it and why does it work?

Quite simply, gear reduction involves using gears/sprockets/pulleys of two different sizes
to work together. Because they are of differing sizes they will have different circumferences
(distance around the outer edge) and we can use this to our
advantage. Let's take a look at what this circumference thing
really means. To the left is a representation of a 4 inch diameter
wheel. Click on the wheel to watch it as it moves through one
complete revolution. You will see that the distance covered in
one revolution is equal to the circumference of the wheel.

Now, let's take a look at a wheel


that is twice the size. Click on the 8
inch wheel to watch it as it goes
through one complete revolution.
What you will notice is that notice is
that not only does the wheel have
twice the diameter but it travels twice
the distance in one revolution.
Therefore the circumference is twice that of the 4 inch wheel. So, if the 4 inch wheel were to
cover the same distance as the 8 inch wheel then it has to complete 2 full revolutions.

So, is there a way to figure out the circumference of a wheel? You bet! Remember the
magical number Pi? Pi is roughly equivalent to 3.14. So, to determine the circumference of
the wheel we multiply 2 times Pi times the radius of the wheel (radius = half the wheel
diameter). So, for our four inch wheel we have 2 x 3.14 x 2 = 12.5663706144... inches.
(remember to keep your units of measure the same throughout your calculations).
Okay, now that we know that they have
different circumferences how do we apply it? Well,
this time instead of rolling each along the ground
we are going to roll them against each other. What
you will notice is that the smaller wheel has to spin
twice so that the arrows line back up whereas the
big wheel only has to spin once. In other words the
input has to spin 2 times to get the output to spin 1
time. Thus we get a 2 to 1 ratio more commonly
written as 2:1. A configuration like this is referred to as a single stage reduction because there
is only a single interaction between wheels.

Now that we have the basic


understanding, lets take it one step
further, or one stage further as the case
may be. In the example to the right we
have added a second wheel/gear in
between the two that we already had. It
actually is two gears in one. The large
gear interacts with the first input gear. It
is physically attached to a smaller third
gear so that the smaller one revolves at
the same rate as the larger one. This
smaller gear is then in turn interacting with the fourth output gear. Two keep things simple
the second gear is twice the diameter of the first gear. The third gear is the same diameter as
the first and the fourth is the same size as the second so that we have a 2:1 reduction between
the first and second and a 2:1 between the third and fourth.

So, with all that laid out we can begin. As we saw in the single stage reduction the small
gear had to spin twice to get the larger gear to spin once. Well, the same holds true here but
since the second gear is attached to the third gear the third gear also only spun once which
means that the fourth gear only got turned half way. To spin the last gear the rest of the way
the first gear needs to spin two more times for a total of four times. Therefore, when it is all
said and done the input gear had to spin 4 times to get the output gear to spin 1 time, or 4 to
1, or 4:1. This example is known as a two stage reduction because there are two places where
the gears interact (mesh). Remember that the second and third gear are the same piece of
material and do not move independently of each other.

Note: Reduction annotation is usually written with how many input rotations it takes to get
one output rotation. Ex. 3.5 (input) : 1 (output)

There are also multistaged reductions which involve many gears which can reductions of
over 1000:1! It just depends upon the required output speed and torque (we'll get to that
later). So, how can you determine what the gearing is of a set of gears/sprockets/pulleys?
Well, gears, timing belts, and sprockets are easy because they are labeled according to how
many teeth they have. If you have an input gear with 10 teeth on it and an output gear with 40
teeth then the 10 tooth gear will have to rotate 4 times (40/10) to get the 40 tooth gear to spin
once. Therefore we have a 4:1 single stage reduction. V-Belt pulleys, on the other hand are
based upon pulley diameter.
Well, how do we determine the final reduction of a multistaged gearbox? It's really pretty
easy. Multiply the reduction of the first set of gear times the reduction of the next set times
the reduction of the next set and so on until you have included them all. That will give you
the total gear reduction. So, if we had a three stage gearbox where the first gear set was
reduced 4:1, the second set reduced 5:1, and the third set 6:1 then we would multiply 4 x 5 x
6 to get 120:1. (Or you could just look at the motor specs :-p) Now, let's use the motor that
we talked about at the beginning and put this gearbox on it and then attach a wheel to the
output shaft. Input rpm is 3000. With a 120:1 reduction we divide 3000 by 120 to get 125
rpm. If we attach a 6 inch wheel to that then our bot would move at 2.32 miles per hour.
Hmmmmm.... That's a little slow for our taste so we'll have to come up with a gear box that
gives us what we are looking for. So, let's determine what type of reduction we would need to
achieve a target speed of 15 miles per hour for our bot (that is a quick bot!) First, we know
that we are using 6 inch wheels and our motor spins at 3000 rpm and are target speed is 15
mph and our constant is 336. Plug them into this formula ((wheel size) x (motor
rpm))/((target speed) x 336). If we plug in our numbers we would get (6 x 3000)/(15 x 336) =
3.57:1. It would be pretty hard to get that exact reduction but we can get close using a 10
tooth input sprocket or gear and a 35 or 36 tooth output sprocket or gear. But, also remember
that the 3000 rpm is for an unloaded motor. Loaded motors will spin at a slower speed but
determining that speed is beyond the scope of this help section.

Now, there are those in the builders community who say that your reduction should be the
same as your wheel size. i.e. If you are using a 6 inch wheel then you need 6:1 reduction or if
you are using a 10 inch wheel then you need 10:1 reduction. I personally think that is over
generalizing since different motor spin at different rates.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of gear reduction?

Well, the two main disadvantages are #1 you lose speed and #2 you have added weight for
the gear box. But, on the other hand, there are some great advantages to using gear reduction.
First, you bring the bot down to a manageable speed. Second, the motor doesn't have to work
as hard to spin the wheel which means it won't draw as much current from your batteries.
And third, along those lines, the torque produced by the output is inversely proportional to
the amount of reduction in the gear box. Say what? Basically, if you have a 4:1 gear box then
the bot moves 1/4 as fast but has 4 times the torque! So you can have a 120 pound robot with
the right gearing that will push a 400 pound load across the floor!

The optimum configuration will give you greatest speed but still have enough torque to
cause the wheels to break traction (peel out) before the motor stalls. That optimum
configuration varies from bot to bot and is up to you to figure out how to best implement it
with your own robot.