Adams on a Roll

Adams on a Roll

A group of hollow and solid cylinders once met at the top of a ramp. “Hey, solid cylinders,” said the hollow cylinder, “Want to race?”. So, it began – a battle for the ages, and an outcome so impressive that we recreated it using an Adams simulation.

Click to watch simulation

As you can tell, the hollow cylinder did not do too well; it lost momentum early on in the descent and was left behind with the outcome never in doubt. Further confounding the issue was that the three solid cylinders were not identical.

They had different sizes, material properties, weights, and that seemingly did not seem to impact the rate of their downward trajectory. They all finished alongside each other. We know for a fact (because Galileo told us) that objects dropped down from a certain height descend at the same rate regardless of their mass. (Assuming no aerodynamic losses, of course).

Does this apply to rolling objects too?

Well, at the risk of bringing back a painful high school memory, let me indulge you in a dynamicist’s favorite vice- a free-body diagram.


Looking at the force components in the three dimensions and assuming negligible wall thickness for the hollow cylinder, we have:

This tells us that the cylinder’s acceleration as it rolls down on an inclined ramp is independent of its mass, dimensions, or material density. It is only related to the inclined angle, gravitational acceleration, and a constant imposed by its rotational moment of inertia.

So as long as a cylinder is solid, heavier cylinders or lighter cylinders, shorter cylinders, or longer cylinders will navigate the ramp at the same rate. By extension, we have also learned that a hollow cylinder will always be slower than a solid cylinder, regardless of other factors.

So the next time if you think your neighborhood grocer shortchanged you on a can of beans you purchased, roll it down an inclined ramp and let physics do the rest.

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  • mike brown
    December 8, 2020


    Love the theory and the free-body diagram did bring back shivers of university studies. I wish to ask how this might relate to rolling along a flat surface with a hollow cylindar and solid cylinder both given the same push, would the solid roll further due to its moment of intertia.
    i’m an inline speed skater (learning) and thinking if spoked wheel or solid hub would be faster/more efficient. Thanks. Would love to see the simulation of this.

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