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Stepper Motor vs. Servo Motor: Which Is Right for Your Application?

Mike Keefe | April 7th, 2021

In today’s industrial marketplace, it can be very difficult and confusing to select the correct motor for an application. There are a number of motor options available: induction, synchronous reluctance, stepper, and servo motors.

In addition to all of the motor options, the information on each is commonly either too basic or too technical to be helpful. This post is intended to provide clarity on the differences between stepper and servo motors and when it is appropriate to use each technology.

 

What Is a Stepper Motor?

A stepper motor is a type of brushless DC motor. Stepper motors are designed to provide a certain number of defined steps per revolution. For example, a motor with 200 steps/revolution will offer a position resolution of 1.8°/pulse (360°/200pulses). Each time the motor is pulsed by the stepper controller, it will move in the forward or reverse direction according to the number of pulses received. In our stepper example, 100 pulses would cause the motor to rotate 180°.

 

Pros

A stepper motor is able to offer open-loop positioning, which is a big advantage compared to open-loop induction motors, which are not able to provide positioning. Most stepper motors do not include any feedback which lowers the overall cost of a stepper and control solution. Their low cost is a large reason for their wide usage.

One advantage in industrial applications is that a stepper motor can be run with DC powered Stepper Drive. They do not require larger inverters that input 230/460VAC and need bulky fusing and cabling. This can be quite significant with multi-axis applications.

DIN mount stepper drive
DC input Stepper Drives are very compact and can even be mounted in DIN rail in the electrical enclosure

Cons

It is possible for a stepper to “lose” position. This can happen if the stepper motor does not provide enough torque to move the shaft and load. It can also happen at high speeds where the stepper motor goes too fast to lock in at each step. Additionally, this could happen if the inertia of the load carries it past the intended step when it is stopped. If the position accuracy of the stepper is critical, some motors will add feedback like an incremental encoder. The feedback will identify if the actual shaft position deviates from the expected position, and the motor can correct as needed. The exception is when the load torque exceeds the rated torque of the stepper. In this case, the motor will stall and not be able to correct itself.

Stepper Motor Powered by KEB DIN Rail Mount Steppper Module
KEB DIN mount stepper drives feature incremental encoder feedback

Steppers do not retain any sort of known positioning when they are powered down. Therefore, they need to complete a homing routine every time they are powered up. You can see this when you turn on your printer at home.  You will see the motors complete a routine that resets to a known “home” position.

In short, Stepper motors are ideal for a wide variety of industries and small power applications, ranging from 3D Printers, adjustable conveyors and small metering pumps.

 

What Is a Servo Motor?

While servo motors simply mean a motor controlled with feedback, in the world of automation it is accepted to specifically mean an AC permanent magnet synchronous motor. These motors have a stator similar to that of an induction motor, but their rotors are constructed with rare earth magnets. This eliminates the slip found in induction motors and allows the servo motor to run at the synchronous speed defined by the frequency and number of poles (rpm=120*Frequency# of Poles).

Pros

AC servo motors use rare earth permanent magnets, so they offer best-in-class torque density. This is preferred for very dynamic motor applications that must accelerate and decelerate quickly. Servo motors include some sort of feedback, whether it is a resolver or encoder. The shaft feedback is critical because it is used in the Servo controller to control rotor position and torque.

Unlike a stepper motor, Servo motors are capable of providing momentary peak torque across its speed range. A servo motor’s peak torque can be very important in certain applications and can result in an optimized motor selection. Additionally, AC servo motors operate at much higher speeds compared to stepper motors.

speed torque curve servo motor
Servo Motors provide a high peak torque at 0 Speed.

 

Critical motion control applications that involve functional safety and the handling of critical or expensive products (e.g., semiconductor machines) should use Servo motors with feedback. The low-cost benefit of a stepper motor/control simply does not justify the risk of injury or product failure. Common examples for their best use are in packaging machines, material handling, robotics, and many more.

Finally, KEB servo motors can be equipped with absolute encoders. Absolute encoders retain their position information even when the system is powered down. This can be very important in applications where rehoming is not possible due.

servo with multiturn absolute encoder
KEB Servo motors can be equipped with multi-turn absolute encoders which will retain system position even when power is lost

Cons

The main disadvantage of servo motors compared to steppers is going to be the cost of the motor and the associated drive that controls it.  This is especially true for smaller power applications (e.g. 500W and below).  If the application does not require the precision and high torque overload that a servo motor offers, then a stepper motor is likely the better choice.

Servo motors are well suited for a range of industries and applications, powering conveyor systems for packaging machines, metal cutting and forming machines, and robotics.

 

What Does KEB Have to Offer?

KEB offers a range of products to support both stepper and servo motors. On the stepper motor side, KEB’s stepper drive module offers control for stepper motors up to 5A while utilizing CiA 402 motion control profiles.

ethercat stepper drive
KEB’s EtherCAT stepper drive uses CiA 402 motion profiles

 

Meanwhile, KEB offers both servo motors and drives to control them. The KEB servo motors offer speeds up to 9000rpm and nominal torques as high as 70Nm. To control the motors, the S6 and F6 drives combine flexibility and performance to make them ideal for servo applications.

servo motor lineup
KEB offers a wide power range of AC servo motors and matching Servo Drives

 

Interested in learning more about stepper or servo motors and how they could be used in your application? Contact an Applications Engineer at KEB America today!

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