Servo or no? How to decide

Do you really need a servo? Can an induction motor with a feedback device provide a better solution for specific applications? Looking at definitions and performance characteristics for servos and induction motors may move the decision along. Servo motor system: A servo is not just a motor. It is a closed loop motion system composed of a controller, a drive, a motor and a feedback device, usual...


Do you really need a servo? Can an induction motor with a feedback device provide a better solution for specific applications? Looking at definitions and performance characteristics for servos and induction motors may move the decision along.

Servo motor system : A servo is not just a motor. It is a closed loop motion system composed of a controller, a drive, a motor and a feedback device, usually an optical or magnetic encoder. The confusion begins when the motor supplier advertises a servo motor.

The “servo motor” is a synchronous machine with permanent magnets (PM) that is represented by a brush or brushless PM motor. It has certain performance characteristics that separate it from other motor types. The permanent magnet synchronous motor possesses very high peak and continuous torques used to drive the servo system at high acceleration and deceleration rates in precision positioning systems. Torque is directly proportional to input current. Motor shaft speed is directly linked to input voltage. The higher the input voltage, the higher the motor’s speed. Torque versus speed curve is linear.

The permanent magnet structure is directly adjacent to the motor’s air gap. Looking at the brushless PM motor’s configuration, the two interactive magnetic structures, the moving rotor (with attached permanent magnets) and the stationary stator winding interact magnetically to create the motor’s torque and speed. The three phase stator field is sequentially energized and the PM rotor follows the rotating stator field in a synchronous fashion. A special electronic commutation system is used to detect rotor position to energize the stator windings. The brushless PM motor would be selected over all other motors in precision positioning systems with the exception of most automotive applications and systems using very large motors. The brushless PM motor is only a servo motor when it is used in a closed loop torque, velocity or positioning system.

An induction motor has the same physical stator as a PM brushless motor with an entirely different rotor construction. The squirrel-cage induction motor rotor consists of a series of conducting aluminum or copper bars laid into slots located in the rotor structure and connected at either end by large shorting rings. These shorted rotor bars magnetically couple to the stator’s rotating field and induce a new rotor field that interacts with the stator field to produce rotor motion. There is a small difference between the synchronous stator and the slower rotor fields and the actual rotor speed. This speed difference is designated the slip. The input frequency determines motor speed.

For example, a 60 Hz two pole ac motor would have a no-load speed near 3,600 rpm and a four-pole ac motor would run at below 1,800 rpm depending on the slip value. As the motor develops torque, slip increases and speed drops. The ac induction motor will develop more torque at the expense of speed reduction until the load approaches the breakdown point where motor speed suddenly drops to zero. An intrinsic ac motor performance characteristic is that it has little starting torque and any load must be removed for the motor to start.

This motor intrinsic torque-speed performance was completely changed by the arrival of the inverter electronic drive in the 1980s. The inverter’s ability to change both voltage and frequency using adjustable or variable speed drives reshaped the torque-speed curve, opening use of ac induction motors as the speed-system king.

Speed and position systems today : Continued evolution of higher performance drives has brought the brushless PM and ac induction motors and associated drives closer to competitive conditions in many markets, but the brushless PM motor dominates position control applications. Brushless PM motors in speed controls have made important inroads against dc brushed speed controls in the 1 kw (1.37 hp) and smaller power applications on the factory floor.

How to choose : The ac induction motor is not presently designed for low inertia and high acceleration response. It dominates most speed applications from 100 watts to 1 megawatt.

Use a brushless PM motor for servo position systems except in 50 kw (67 hp) or larger systems. Use ac induction more in constant or variable speed systems. Cross-over solutions are rare. Other motors hold promise, but without the success of the venerable ac induction motor or the up-and-coming brushless PM motors.

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Additional information about the tutorial above, follows below.

History: When servo systems used induction motors
In 1955, the motor of choice for use in servo motors under 100 watts was the 2 phase ac induction motor with a high rotor slip (and poor efficiency) to allow its torque-speed performance to be near linear. Permanent magnets led by the Alnico family were just beginning to be used in PM brush dc motors. The 1960s brought ferrite magnets into use, and they captured almost all the auxiliary automotive business within 10 years.
The discovery of rare earth magnets in the late 1960s changed the positioning (servo) system by the late 1970’s. Brushless PM motors combined with rare earth permanent magnets took over the precision servo market by the early 1990s.
AC induction motors continued to capture more share of the variable speed markets in the 1990s to achieve its predominate position in most speed control markets.

Today ac induction speed control is in third position on the factory floor. The ac induction motor is, however, the consummate speed control motor over a wide range of industrial adjustable speed controls. While the brushless PM motor is an excellent speed motor, the higher cost of permanent magnets currently severely limit its use in these markets.

Author Information

Dan Jones is president, Incremotion Associates/Motion Media Group,

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