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What is a Rocker Arm?

Jeremy Laukkonen
Jeremy Laukkonen

A rocker arm is a valvetrain component in internal combustion engines. As the arm is acted on by a camshaft lobe, it pushes open either an intake or exhaust valve. This allows fuel and air to be drawn into the combustion chamber during the intake stroke or exhaust gases to be expelled during the exhaust stroke. Rocker arms were first invented in the 19th century and have changed little in function since then. Improvements have been made, however, in both efficiency of operation and construction materials. Many modern rocker arms are made from stamped steel, though some applications can make use of heavier duty materials.

In many internal combustion engines, rotational motion is induced in the crank shaft as the pistons cause it to rotate. This rotation is translated to the camshaft via a belt or chain. In turn, lobes on the camshaft are used to push open the valves via rocker arms. This can be achieved either through direct contact between a camshaft lobe and rocker arm or indirectly though contact with a lifter driven pushrod. Overhead cam engines have lobes on the camshaft which contact each rocker arm directly, while overhead valve engines utilize lifters and pushrods. In overhead cam engines, the camshaft can be located in the head, while overhead valve engines have the camshaft in the block. Both varieties are seen in the US, but regulations have contributed to the decline of overhead valve applications elsewhere in the world.

Man with hands on his hips
Man with hands on his hips

Throughout the history of the rocker arm, its function has been studied and improved upon. These improvements have resulted in arms that are both more efficient and more resistant to wear. Some designs can actually use two rocker arms per valve, while others utilize a "rundle" roller bearing to depress the valve. These variations in design can result in rocker arms that look physically different from each other, though every arm still performs the same basic function.

Since energy is required to move a rocker arm and depress a valve, their weight can be an important consideration. If a rocker arm is excessively heavy, it may require too much energy to move. This may prevent the engine from achieving the desired speed of rotation. The strength of the material can also be a consideration, as weak material may stress or wear too quickly. Many automotive applications make use of stamped steel for these reasons, as this material can provide a balance between weight and durability. Some applications, particularly diesel engines, may make use of heavier duty materials. Engines such as these can operate at higher torques and lower rotational speeds, allowing such materials as cast iron or forged carbon steel to be used.

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Discussion Comments


One thing fascinating about engines is how little the basic design has changed over the years. Sure, there have been improvements in both efficiency and power (hence a 305 horsepower V-6 that can get 30 miles per gallon in Ford Mustangs, Chevrolet Camaros and Dodge Challengers), but those are due to refinements and advancements in engineering rather than radical changes to the basic ways an internal combustion engines work.

Rocker arms are a perfect example. They work the same way they always have, but engineering improvements have boosted their efficiency which, in turn, has led to increased fuel economy and horsepower (the horsepower coming from the use of overhead cams, four valves per cylinder, etc.)

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