Stepper Motor

stepper motor (or step motor) is a brushless DC electric motor that divides a full rotation into a number of equal steps. The motor’s position can then be commanded to move and hold at one of these steps without any feedback sensor (an open-loop controller), as long as the motor is carefully sized to the application.

Switched reluctance motors are very large stepping motors with a reduced pole count, and generally are closed-loop commutated.

Fundamentals of operation

DC brush motors rotate continuously when voltage is applied to their terminals. Stepper motors, on the other hand, effectively have multiple “toothed” electromagnets arranged around a central gear-shaped piece of iron. The electromagnets are energized by an external control circuit, such as a microcontroller. To make the motor shaft turn, first, one electromagnet is given power, which makes the gear’s teeth magnetically attracted to the electromagnet’s teeth. When the gear’s teeth are aligned to the first electromagnet, they are slightly offset from the next electromagnet. So when the next electromagnet is turned on and the first is turned off, the gear rotates slightly to align with the next one, and from there the process is repeated. Each of those slight rotations is called a “step”, with an integer number of steps making a full rotation. In that way, the motor can be turned by a precise angle.

Stepper motor characteristics

  • Stepper motors are constant power devices.
  • As motor speed increases, torque decreases. Most motors exhibit maximum torque when stationary; however, the torque of a motor when stationary (holding torque) defines the ability of the motor to maintain a desired position while under external load. The torque curve may be extended by using current limiting drivers and increasing the driving voltage (sometimes referred to as a ‘chopper’ circuit; there are several off the shelf driver chips capable of doing this in a simple manner).
  • Steppers exhibit more vibration than other motor types, as the discrete step tends to snap the rotor from one position to another (called a detent). The vibration makes stepper motors noisier than DC motors. This vibration can become very bad at some speeds and can cause the motor to lose torque or lose direction. This is because the rotor is being held in a magnetic field which behaves like a spring. On each step the rotor overshoots and bounces back and forth, “ringing” at its resonant frequency. If the stepping frequency matches the resonant frequency then the ringing increases and the motor loses synchronism, resulting in positional error or a change in direction. At worst there is a total loss of control and holding torque so the motor is easily overcome by the load and spins almost freely. The effect can be mitigated by accelerating quickly through the problem speeds range, physically damping (frictional damping) the system, or using a micro-stepping driver. Motors with a greater number of phases also exhibit smoother operation than those with fewer phases (this can also be achieved through the use of a micro-stepping driver).
  • Stepper motors with higher inductance coils provide greater torque at low speeds and lower torque at high speeds compared to stepper motors with lower inductance coils.

Open-loop versus closed-loop commutation

Steppers are generally commutated (electrically switched) using “open loop” electronics, i.e., the driver has no feedback on where the rotor actually is. Stepper motor systems must thus generally be oversized, especially if the load inertia is high, or there is widely varying load, so that there is no possibility that the motor will lose steps. This has often caused the system designer to consider the trade-offs between a closely sized but expensive servomechanism system and an oversized but relatively cheap stepper.

A new development in stepper control is to incorporate a rotor position feedback (e.g., a rotary encoder or resolver), so that the commutation can be made optimal for torque generation according to actual rotor position. This turns the stepper motor into a high pole count brushless servo motor, with exceptional low speed torque and position resolution. An advance on this technique is to normally run the motor in open loop mode, and only enter closed loop mode if the rotor position error becomes too large; this will allow the system to avoid hunting or oscillating, a problem when servo gain is set too high.


There are four main types of stepper motors:

  1. Permanent magnet stepper (can be subdivided in to ‘tin-can’ and ‘hybrid’, tin-can being a cheaper product, and hybrid with higher quality bearings, smaller step angle, higher power density)
  2. Hybrid synchronous stepper
  3. Variable reluctance stepper
  4. Lavet type stepping motor

Permanent magnet motors use a permanent magnet (PM) in the rotor and operate on the attraction or repulsion between the rotor PM and the stator electromagnets. Variable reluctance (VR) motors have a plain iron rotor and operate based on the principle that minimum reluctance occurs with minimum gap, hence the rotor points are attracted toward the stator magnet poles. Hybrid stepper motors are named because they use a combination of PM and VR techniques to achieve maximum power in a small package size.

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