A mechanical linkage is an assembly of systems connected to manage forces and movement. The movement of a body, or link, is studied using geometry so the link is considered to be rigid. The connections between links are modeled as providing ideal movement, pure rotation or sliding for example, and are called joints. A linkage modeled as a network of rigid links and ideal joints is called a kinematic chain.
Linkages may be constructed from open chains, closed chains, or a combination of open and closed chains. Each link in a chain is connected by a joint to one or more other links. Thus, a kinematic chain can be modeled as a graph in which the links are paths and the joints are vertices, which is called a linkage graph.
The movement of an ideal joint is generally associated with a subgroup of the group of Euclidean displacements. The number of parameters in the subgroup is called the degrees of freedom (DOF) of the joint. Mechanical linkages are usually designed to transform a given input force and movement into a desired output force and movement. The ratio of the output force to the input force is known as the mechanical advantage of the linkage, while the ratio of the input speed to the output speed is known as the speed ratio. The speed ratio and mechanical advantage are defined so they yield the same number in an ideal linkage.
A kinematic chain, in which one link is fixed or stationary, is called a mechanism, and a linkage designed to be stationary is called a structure.
Archimedes applied geometry to the study of the lever. Into the 1500s the work of Archimedes and Hero of Alexandria were the primary sources of machine theory. It was Leonardo da Vinci who brought an inventive energy to machines and mechanism.
In the mid-1700s the steam engine was of growing importance, and James Watt realized that efficiency could be increased by using different cylinders for expansion and condensation of the steam. This drove his search for a linkage that could transform rotation of a crank into a linear slide, and resulted in his discovery of what is called Watt's linkage. This led to the study of linkages that could generate straight lines, even if only approximately; and inspired the mathematician J. J. Sylvester, who lectured on the Peaucellier linkage, which generates an exact straight line from a rotating crank.
The work of Sylvester inspired A. B. Kempe, who showed that linkages for addition and multiplication could be assembled into a system that traced a given algebraic curve. Kempe's design procedure has inspired research at the intersection of geometry and computer science.
In the late 1800s F. Reuleaux, A. B. W. Kennedy, and L. Burmester formalized the analysis and synthesis of linkage systems using descriptive geometry, and P. L. Chebyshev introduced analytical techniques for the study and invention of linkages.
In the mid-1900s F. Freudenstein and G. N. Sandor used the newly developed digital computer to solve the loop equations of a linkage and determine its dimensions for a desired function, initiating the computer-aided design of linkages. Within two decades these computer techniques were integral to the analysis of complex machine systems and the control of robot manipulators.
R. E. Kaufman combined the computer's ability to rapidly compute the roots of polynomial equations with a graphical user interface to unite Freudenstein's techniques with the geometrical methods of Reuleaux and Burmester and form KINSYN, an interactive computer graphics system for linkage design
The modern study of linkages includes the analysis and design of articulated systems that appear in robots, machine tools, and cable driven and tensegrity systems. These techniques are also being applied to biological systems and even the study of proteins.
The configuration of a system of rigid links connected by ideal joints is defined by a set of configuration parameters, such as the angles around a revolute joint and the slides along prismatic joints measured between adjacent links. The geometric constraints of the linkage allow calculation of all of the configuration parameters in terms of a minimum set, which are the input parameters. The number of input parameters is called the mobility, or degree of freedom, of the linkage system.
A system of n rigid bodies moving in space has 6n degrees of freedom measured relative to a fixed frame. Include this frame in the count of bodies, so that mobility is independent of the choice of the fixed frame, then we have M = 6(N − 1), where N = n + 1 is the number of moving bodies plus the fixed body.
Joints that connect bodies in this system remove degrees of freedom and reduce mobility. Specifically, hinges and sliders each impose five constraints and therefore remove five degrees of freedom. It is convenient to define the number of constraints c that a joint imposes in terms of the joint's freedom f, where c = 6 − f. In the case of a hinge or slider, which are one degree of freedom joints, we have f = 1 and therefore c = 6 − 1 = 5.
Thus, the mobility of a linkage system formed from n moving links and j joints each with fi, i = 1, ..., j, degrees of freedom can be computed as,
where N includes the fixed link. This is known as Kutzbach–Grübler's equation
There are two important special cases: (i) a simple open chain, and (ii) a simple closed chain. A simple open chain consists of n moving links connected end to end by j joints, with one end connected to a ground link. Thus, in this case N = j + 1 and the mobility of the chain is
For a simple closed chain, n moving links are connected end-to-end by n+1 joints such that the two ends are connected to the ground link forming a loop. In this case, we have N=j and the mobility of the chain is
An example of a simple open chain is a serial robot manipulator. These robotic systems are constructed from a series of links connected by six one degree-of-freedom revolute or prismatic joints, so the system has six degrees of freedom.
An example of a simple closed chain is the RSSR (revolute-spherical-spherical-revolute) spatial four-bar linkage. The sum of the freedom of these joints is eight, so the mobility of the linkage is two, where one of the degrees of freedom is the rotation of the coupler around the line joining the two S joints.
It is common practice to design the linkage system so that the movement of all of the bodies are constrained to lie on parallel planes, to form what is known as a planar linkage. It is also possible to construct the linkage system so that all of the bodies move on concentric spheres, forming a spherical linkage. In both cases, the degrees of freedom of the link is now three rather than six, and the constraints imposed by joints are now c = 3 − f.
In this case, the mobility formula is given by
and we have the special cases,
An example of a planar simple closed chain is the planar four-bar linkage, which is a four-bar loop with four one degree-of-freedom joints and therefore has mobility M = 1.
The most familiar joints for linkage systems are the revolute, or hinged, joint denoted by an R, and the prismatic, or sliding, joint denoted by a P. Most other joints used for spatial linkages are modeled as combinations of revolute and prismatic joints. For example,