The crankshaft, sometimes abbreviated to crank, is responsible for conversion between reciprocating motion and rotational motion. In a reciprocating engine, it translates reciprocating linear piston motion into rotational motion, whereas in a reciprocating compressor, it converts the rotational motion into reciprocating motion. In order to do the conversion between two motions, the crankshaft has “crank throws” or “crankpins”, additional bearing surfaces whose axis is offset from that of the crank, to which the “big ends” of the connecting rods from each cylinder attach. It is typically connected to a flywheel to reduce the pulsation characteristic of the four-stroke cycle, and sometimes a torsional or vibrational damper at the opposite end, to reduce the torsional vibrations often caused along the length of the crankshaft by the cylinders farthest from the output end acting on the torsional elasticity of the metal.

  • Crankshafts can be monolithic (made in a single piece) or assembled from several pieces. Monolithic crankshafts are most common, but some smaller and larger engines use assembled crankshafts.
  • Crankshafts can be forged from a steel bar usually through roll forging or cast in ductile steel. Today more and more manufacturers tend to favor the use of forged crankshafts due to their lighter weight, more compact dimensions and better inherent dampening. With forged crankshafts, vanadium micro alloyed steels are mostly used as these steels can be air cooled after reaching high strengths without additional heat treatment, with exception to the surface hardening of the bearing surfaces. The low alloy content also makes the material cheaper than high alloy steels. Carbon steels are also used, but these require additional heat treatment to reach the desired properties. Iron crankshafts are today mostly found in cheaper production engines (such as those found in the Ford Focus diesel engines) where the loads are lower. Some engines also use cast iron crankshafts for low output versions while the more expensive high output version use forged steel.
  • Crankshafts can also be machined out of a billet, often a bar of high quality vacuum steel. Though the fiber flow (local inhomogeneities of the material’s chemical composition generated during casting) doesn’t follow the shape of the crankshaft (which is undesirable), this is usually not a problem since higher quality steels, which normally are difficult to forge, can be used. These crankshafts tend to be very expensive due to the large amount of material that must be removed with lathes and milling machines, the high material cost, and the additional heat treatment required. However, since no expensive tooling is needed, this production method allows small production runs without high costs. In an effort to reduce costs, used crankshafts may also be machined. A good core may often be easily reconditioned by a crankshaft grinding process. Severely damaged crankshafts may also be repaired with a welding operation, prior to grinding, that utilizes a submerged arc welding machine. To accommodate the smaller journal diameters a ground crankshaft has, and possibly an over-sized thrust dimension, undersize engine bearings are used to allow for precise clearances during operation.
  • The fatigue strength of crankshafts is usually increased by using a radius at the ends of each main and crankpin bearing. The radius itself reduces the stress in these critical areas, but since the radius in most cases is rolled, this also leaves some compressive residual stress in the surface, which prevents cracks from forming.
  • The shaft is subjected to various forces but generally needs to be analyzed in two positions. Firstly, failure may occur at the position of maximum bending; this may be at the center of the crank or at either end. In such a condition the failure is due to bending and the pressure in the cylinder is maximal. Second, the crank may fail due to twisting, so the needs to be checked for shear at the position of maximal twisting. The pressure at this position is the maximal pressure, but only a fraction of maximal pressure.

Large engines are usually multicylinder to reduce pulsations from individual firing strokes, with more than one piston attached to a complex crankshaft. Many small engines, such as those found in mopeds or garden machinery, are single cylinder and use only a single piston, simplifying crankshaft design. This engine can also be built with no riveted seam.

  • The crankshaft has a linear axis about which it rotates, typically with several bearing journals riding on replaceable bearings (the main bearings) held in the engine block. As the crankshaft undergoes a great deal of sideways load from each cylinder in a multicylinder engine, it must be supported by several such bearings, not just one at each end.
  • The distance the axis of the crank throws from the axis of the crankshaft determines the piston stroke measurement, and thus engine displacement. A common way to increase the low-speed torque of an engine is to increase the stroke, sometimes known as “shaft-stroking.” This also increases the reciprocating vibration, however, limiting the high speed capability of the engine. In compensation, it improves the low speed operation of the engine, as the longer intake stroke through smaller valves results in greater turbulence and mixing of the intake charge.
  • For some engines it is necessary to provide counterweights for the reciprocating mass of each piston and connecting rod to improve engine balance. These are typically cast as part of the crankshaft but, occasionally, are bolt-on pieces. While counter weights add a considerable amount of weight to the crankshaft, it provides a smoother running engine and allows higher RPM levels to be reached.
  • Many early aircraft engines (and a few in other applications) had the crankshaft fixed to the airframe and instead the cylinders rotated, known as a rotary engine design. Rotary engines such as the Wankel engine are referred to as pistonless rotary engines.
  • The radial engine is a reciprocating type internal combustion engine configuration in which the cylinders point outward from a central crankshaft like the spokes of a wheel. It resembles a stylized star when viewed from the front, and is called a “star engine” in some languages. The radial configuration was very commonly used in aircraft engines before turbine engines became predominant.

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