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Backlash (engineering)


In mechanical engineering, backlash, sometimes called lash or play, is a clearance or lost motion in a mechanism caused by gaps between the parts. It can be defined as "the maximum distance or angle through which any part of a mechanical system may be moved in one direction without applying appreciable force or motion to the next part in mechanical sequence."p. 1-8 An example, in the context of gears and gear trains, is the amount of clearance between mated gear teeth. It can be seen when the direction of movement is reversed and the slack or lost motion is taken up before the reversal of motion is complete. It can be heard from the railway couplings when a train reverses direction. Another example is in a valve train with mechanical tappets, where a certain range of lash is necessary for the valves to work properly.

Depending on the application, backlash may or may not be desirable. Some amount of backlash is unavoidable in nearly all reversing mechanical couplings, although its effects can be negated or compensated for. In many applications, the theoretical ideal would be zero backlash, but in actual practice some backlash must be allowed to prevent jamming. Reasons for the presence of looseness or "play" in mechanical linkages that cause backlash include allowing for lubrication, manufacturing errors, deflection under load, and thermal expansion.

Factors affecting the amount of backlash required in a gear train include errors in profile, pitch, tooth thickness, helix angle and center distance, and run-out. The greater the accuracy the smaller the backlash needed. Backlash is most commonly created by cutting the teeth deeper into the gears than the ideal depth. Another way of introducing backlash is by increasing the center distances between the gears.

In a gear train, backlash is cumulative. When a gear-train is reversed the driving gear is turned a short distance, equal to the total of all the backlashes, before the final driven gear begins to rotate. At low power outputs, backlash results in inaccurate calculation from the small errors introduced at each change of direction; at large power outputs backlash sends shocks through the whole system and can damage teeth and other components.

One half of the gear is fixed to its shaft while the other half of the gear is allowed to turn on the shaft, but pre-loaded in rotation by small coil springs that rotate the free gear relative to the fixed gear. In this way, the spring compression rotates the free gear until all of the backlash in the system has been taken out; the teeth of the fixed gear press against one side of the teeth of the pinion while the teeth of the free gear press against the other side of the teeth on the pinion. Loads smaller than the force of the springs do not compress the springs and with no gaps between the teeth to be taken up, backlash is eliminated.

Another area where backlash matters is in leadscrews. Again, as with the gear train example, the culprit is lost motion when reversing a mechanism that is supposed to transmit motion accurately. Instead of gear teeth, the context is screw threads. The linear sliding axes (machine slides) of machine tools are an example application.

The simplest CNCs, such as microlathes or manual-to-CNC conversions, which use nut-and-Acme-screw drives can be programmed to correct for the total backlash on each axis, so that the machine's control system will automatically move the extra distance required to take up the slack when it changes directions. This programmatic "backlash compensation" is a cheap solution, but professional grade CNCs use the more expensive backlash-eliminating drives mentioned above. This allows them to do 3D contouring with a ball-nosed endmill, for example, where the endmill travels around in many directions with constant rigidity and without delays.

Minimum backlash is the minimum transverse backlash at the operating pitch circle allowable when the gear tooth with the greatest allowable functional tooth thickness is in mesh with the pinion tooth having its greatest allowable functional tooth thickness, at the tightest allowable center distance, under static conditions.

Non-precision gear couplings use backlash to allow for slight angular misalignment. However, backlash is undesirable in precision positioning applications such as machine tool tables. It can be minimized by tighter design features such as ball screws instead of leadscrews, and by using preloaded bearings. A preloaded bearing uses a spring or other compressive force to maintain bearing surfaces in contact despite reversal of direction.