A ball screw is a mechanical device for translating rotational motion to linear motion. A threaded shaft provides a spiral raceway for ball bearings which act as a precision screw. As well as being able to apply or withstand high thrust loads they can do so with minimum internal friction. They are made to close tolerances and are therefore suitable for use in situations in which high precision is necessary. The ball assembly acts as the nut while the threaded shaft is the screw.
These items, in contrast to conventional leadscrews, tend to be rather bulky, due to the need to have a mechanism to re-circulate the balls.
To maintain their inherent accuracy and ensure long life, great care is needed to avoid contamination with dirt and abrasive particles. This may be achieved by using rubber or leather bellows to completely or partially enclose the working surfaces. Another solution is to use a positive pressure of filtered air when they are used in a semi-sealed or open enclosure.
While reducing friction, ball screws can operate with some preload, effectively eliminating backlash (slop) between input (rotation) and output (linear motion). This feature is essential when they are used in computer-controlled motion-control systems, e.g. CNC machine tools and high precision motion applications (eg wire bonding).
Due to their low internal friction, ball screws can be back-driven (depending upon their lead angle). They are usually undesirable for hand-fed machine tools, as the stiffness of a servo motor is required to keep the cutter from grabbing the work and self feeding, that is, where the cutter and workpiece exceed the optimum feedrate and effectively jam or crash together, ruining the cutter and workpiece. Cost is also a major factor as Acme screws are cheaper to manufacture.
Low friction in ball screws yields high mechanical efficiency compared to alternatives. A typical ball screw may be 90 percent efficient, versus 50 percent efficiency of an Acme lead screw of equal size. The higher cost of ball screws may thus be offset by lower power requirements for the same net performance.
Ball screw shafts may be fabricated by rolling, yielding a less precise, but inexpensive and mechanically efficient product. Rolled ball screws have a positional precision of several thousandths of an inch per foot. High-precision types are ground, and are typically precise to one thousandth of an inch per foot or better.