What is a Stepper Motor?

Author Gravatar Image BILL EARL
Stepper motors are DC motors that move in discrete steps. They have multiple coils that are organized in groups called "phases". By energizing each phase in sequence, the motor will rotate, one step at a time.

With a computer controlled stepping you can achieve very precise positioning and/or speed control. For this reason, stepper motors are the motor of choice for many precision motion control applications.

Stepper motors come in many different sizes and styles and electrical characteristics. This guide details what you need to know to pick the right motor for the job.

A 4-phase unipolar motor.

Animation from Wikimedia Commons

What are stepper motors good for?

  • Positioning – Since steppers move in precise repeatable steps, they excel in applications requiring precise positioning such as 3D printers, CNC, Camera platforms and X,Y Plotters. Some disk drives also use stepper motors to position the read/write head.
  • Speed Control – Precise increments of movement also allow for excellent control of rotational speed for process automation and robotics.
  • Low Speed Torque - Normal DC motors don't have very much torque at low speeds. A Stepper motor has maximum torque at low speeds, so they are a good choice for applications requiring low speed with high precision.

What are their limitations?

  • Low Efficiency – Unlike DC motors, stepper motor current consumption is independent of load. They draw the most current when they are doing no work at all. Because of this, they tend to run hot.
  • Limited High Speed Torque - In general, stepper motors have less torque at high speeds than at low speeds. Some steppers are optimized for better high-speed performance, but they need to be paired with an appropriate driver to achieve that performance.
  • No Feedback – Unlike servo motors, most steppers do not have integral feedback for position. Although great precision can be achieved running ‘open loop’. Limit switches or ‘home’ detectors are typically required for safety and/or to establish a reference position.

Last updated on 2015-04-18 at 08.46.49 AM Published on 2014-05-05 at 06.49.28 PM