Consumer apps are demanding lower cost and higher integration for motion controllers, leading to opportunity for everyone.
Not that long ago, only high-end applications had the resources to implement precision, high-speed motion control. Rising consumer interest in devices such as robots and drones, however, is fostering increased integration and reducing the costs of implementing advanced motor control algorithms. As a result, consumer applications are now taking the driver's seat in moving motion control technology forward, which will benefit industrial users if they can revamp their design approach.
"Cost driven applications are requiring algorithms that were formerly high-end," Trinamic Motion Control founder Michael Rand told EE Times in a recent interview. "Drones, for instance, require fast current control that formerly needed an FPGA or DSP to implement, and other consumer-level products like 3D printers now need to use technologies that used to be only in military or medical systems." This need includes both advanced control technology and high-end motors themselves.
To meet the size, power, and cost needs of consumer products like drones, chip vendors are integrating advanced motion control algorithms in hardware.
The result of this consumerization, Rand pointed out, is that motion control technology is increasingly being driven by consumer requirements such as size and cost. "High speed motion control can't be done in software without a DSP," Rand noted, "so consumer applications need to have the algorithms implemented in hardware. And it needs to be highly integrated, because drones don't have much space." Such specialized hardware is now practical, he added, because of the production volumes involved. "Drones are like smartphones," Rand said, "showing up everywhere."
Another requirement coming from consumer applications is ease of integration, Rand noted, to support the short development cycles of consumer products. Advanced motion control is drawing a new audience, he said, a software-centric one that neither understands motors nor wants to. "They want a simple interface, telling the motor what to do and getting back status information all in digital." The end result is development of both new digital motion control chips as well as new algorithms for features such as self-sensing of armature positions, Rand said.
This consumerization of motion-control technology could have significant benefits for industrial users, though. The availability of low-cost, highly-integrated motor control hardware is making it easier to design high-end motion-control systems, as well. Industrial users embracing these devices will be freed to concentrate more on their application rather than the design of the servo control loops. But it will require a shift in design thinking. Traditional control system designs have a significant focus on analog sensors and control; these new devices will require a shift to thinking in digital terms.
The new devices will also allow pursuit of new applications, especially in the Industrial Internet of Things space. "Most people think of the IoT as involving sensors," Rand noted, "but there are a lot of actuators too." With small size, low cost, and (often) battery operation now available for motion systems, the usage opportunities expand significantly.
—Rich Quinnell covers industrial control for EE Times. Contact him at email@example.com,