On motors and motion control

Kevin Parmenter, Contributing Editor



Kevin Parmenter, Contributing Editor

It is estimated that approximately half the electrical energy generated is consumed globally in driving motor loads in some fashion. Motors and motion control has also been around a while, and now the application of electronics has made the power conversion process from electrical energy to mechanical energy more efficient. 

When discussing Motors and motion control electronics you have to first define the type and sector being discussed.   Low voltage BDLC, HVAC, single phase, three phase, Integrated motor drives, etc. However, there are some common themes.  Performance, features, and functionality can often be enhanced and the computing power available at attractive prices leads to interesting motor control algorithms. 

Combining better motor design and efficient power electronics driven by high speed processors means we can make a significant difference in efficiency while adding features and functionality. Among the interesting trends for systems designers is the “make vs. buy” decision. Integrated motors with the electronics built in are an option, buying the motors and then the drives designed to mate with the motors selected is another, and building your own is a third. 

The level of integration of the motor control microcontrollers with the motor drive peripherals on the same silicon has never been better at attractive prices.  The power electronics are partitioned to connect to the microcontroller and often have the isolation and all the power stage for single or three phase motor control built in.  

Another segment of the market is the maker revolution.  First written off by companies as annoying people who wear tin foil hats and spend their weekends at robot competitions, hobbyists were ignored until someone noticed that they were pushing the envelope on battery technologies, motors and motor drives and hostile shock and vibration environments. It was low cost marketing research and beta testing to support them like crazy and innovation occurred!  Lesson learned - don’t write off the “amateurs” because they often innovate better than the “professionals” do!  

Today you can buy low-cost embedded controller boards with open source hardware – arduino shields and the like for all different types of motors which are well designed and documented and the files are available for free and the boards are available for just about the cost of the PCB and components. Just when you think the finance and operations guys running companies have wrecked everything we see engineers innovating again in the maker movement, which I think is absolutely fantastic. 

Whether you decide to buy motors with integrated control electronics, buy motors and motor controls externally to drive them or you design your own using highly integrated microcontrollers at the system on chip level its easier than ever.  If you decide to design your own using open source hardware there is plenty of innovation left in differentiation in the software to drive the motors with plenty of processing power at your disposal at a more attractive price than ever. 

Additionally with the I/O on the hardware it’s easy to network and communicate with an array of motors and add diagnostic features and the ability to upload new firmware and do field service remotely for example for “IoT” enablement.  There is plenty of flexibly and possibilities for innovation and creativity now possible at a more attractive price than ever before.