WHAT IS A STEPPER MOTOR

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A stepper motor is a “digital” version of the electric motor. The rotor moves in discrete steps as commanded, rather than rotating continuously like a conventional motor. When stopped but energized, a stepper (short for stepper motor) holds its load steady with a holding torque. Wide spread acceptance of the stepper motor within the last two decades was driven by the ascendancy of digital electronics. Modern solid state driver electronics was a key to its success. And, microprocessors readily interface to stepper motor driver circuits.

Application wise, the predecessor of the stepper motor was the servo motor. Today this is a higher cost solution to high performance motion control applications. The expense and complexity of a servomotor is due to the additional system components: position sensor and error amplifier. (Figure below) It is still the way to position heavy loads beyond the grasp of lower power steppers. High acceleration or unusually high accuracy still requires a servo motor. Otherwise, the default is the stepper due to low cost, simple drive electronics, good accuracy, good torque, moderate speed, and low cost.




Stepper motor vs servo motor.

A stepper motor positions the read-write heads in a floppy drive. They were once used for the same purpose in harddrives. However, the high speed and accuracy required of modern harddrive head positioning dictates the use of a linear servomotor (voice coil).

The servo amplifier is a linear amplifier with some difficult to integrate discrete components. A considerable design effort is required to optimize the servo amplifier gain vs phase response to the mechanical components. The stepper motor drivers are less complex solid state switches, being either “on” or “off”. Thus, a stepper motor controller is less complex and costly than a servo motor controller.

Slo-syn synchronous motors can run from AC line voltage like a single-phase permanent-capacitor induction motor. The capacitor generates a 90o second phase. With the direct line voltage, we have a 2-phase drive. Drive waveforms of bipolar (±) square waves of 2-24V are more common these days. The bipolar magnetic fields may also be generated from unipolar (one polarity) voltages applied to alternate ends of a center tapped winding. (Figure below) In other words, DC can be switched to the motor so that it sees AC. As the windings are energized in sequence, the rotor synchronizes with the consequent stator magnetic field. Thus, we treat stepper motors as a class of AC synchronous motor.
Unipolar drive of center tapped coil at (b), emulates AC current in single coil at (a).