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Stepper Motor Basics: Understanding How They Work

Views: 13     Author: Site Editor     Publish Time: 2023-07-22      Origin: Site

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Stepper motors are essential electromechanical devices used in various applications, from industrial automation to consumer electronics. Their ability to convert electrical pulses into precise mechanical motion makes them indispensable in controlling position and speed accurately. In this article, we will explore the fundamental principles behind stepper motors, their working mechanisms, applications, and advantages.

What is a Stepper Motor?

A stepper motor is a brushless, synchronous electromechanical device that converts electrical pulses into mechanical rotation. Unlike traditional motors, stepper motors do not rely on continuous rotation; instead, they move in discrete steps, hence the name "stepper." This precise control over movement makes them ideal for applications that require accurate positioning and speed control.

There are two basic winding arrangements for the electromagnetic coils in a two phase stepper motor: bipolar and unipolar.

Unipolar motors

The unipolar stepper motor is equipped with one winding that has a center tap per phase. Each section of windings is switched on for every direction of the magnetic field. This arrangement allows the reversal of a magnetic pole without switching the polarity of the common wire, simplifying the commutation circuit to a single switching transistor for each half winding. Typically, each winding's center tap is made common for a phase, resulting in three leads per phase and six leads for a standard two-phase motor. In some cases, these two-phase commons are internally connected, reducing the number of leads to five.

For precise angular movements, hobbyists often favor using a microcontroller or stepper motor controller to activate the drive transistors in the correct sequence, making unipolar motors a popular choice. For experimenters, identifying the windings can be done by touching the terminal wires together in PM motors. If the coil's terminals are connected, the shaft becomes more resistant to turning. To distinguish the center tap (common wire) from a coil-end wire, one can measure the resistance. The resistance between the common wire and the coil-end wire is always half of the resistance between coil-end wires. This is due to the difference in coil length between the ends and the center (common wire). A quick test to check if the stepper motor is functioning is to short circuit every two pairs and attempt to turn the shaft. If a higher-than-normal resistance is felt, it indicates that the circuit for that particular winding is closed and the phase is working.

Bipolar Motors

In contrast to unipolar motors, bipolar motors consist of a pair of single winding connections per phase. Reversing the magnetic pole in a winding requires the current to be reversed, making the driving circuit more intricate. Typically, an H-bridge arrangement is used for this purpose, though there are readily available driver chips that simplify this process. Each phase in a bipolar motor has two leads, and none are common.

For a two-coil bipolar stepper motor, a typical driving pattern would be: A+ B+ A− B−. This pattern involves driving coil A with positive current, then removing the current from coil A; driving coil B with positive current, then removing the current from coil B; driving coil A with negative current (achieved by switching the wires, for instance, using an H bridge), then removing the current from coil A; driving coil B with negative current (again, achieving polarity reversal similar to coil A). The cycle then repeats from the beginning.

Certain drive topologies utilizing an H-bridge have been observed to exhibit static friction effects. However, dithering the stepper signal at a higher frequency than the motor can respond to can mitigate this "static friction" effect.

Bipolar stepper motors with gear reduction mechanisms, such as those used in flatbed scanners, offer superior winding utilization, resulting in higher power compared to unipolar motors of the same weight. This advantage stems from the physical space occupied by the windings. Unipolar motors have twice the amount of wire in the same space, but only half of it is used at any given time, making them 50% efficient (approximately 70% of the available torque output). Although driving a bipolar stepper motor is more complex, the abundance of driver chips makes it much less challenging to achieve.

An 8-lead stepper motor resembles a unipolar stepper, but the leads are not internally connected to a common point within the motor. This type of motor can be wired in several configurations:

1. Unipolar: The motor operates in the same way as a standard unipolar stepper motor.

2. Bipolar with Series Windings: This configuration provides higher inductance but lower current per winding.

3. Bipolar with Parallel Windings: Here, higher current is required, but the motor can perform better due to reduced winding inductance.

4. Bipolar with a Single Winding per Phase: This method runs the motor on only half of the available windings, which reduces the available low-speed torque but also requires less current.

Components of a Stepper Motor

A stepper motor typically consists of four main components:

1. Rotor: The rotor is the moving part of the stepper motor. It is usually made of a permanent magnet or soft iron core and is responsible for generating the rotational movement.

2. Stator: The stator is the stationary part of the stepper motor. It contains multiple sets of coils arranged in such a way that they can generate a magnetic field when supplied with electrical current.

3. Pole Pairs: Pole pairs are the number of magnetic poles in the rotor and stator. Each pole pair corresponds to one step of movement in a stepper motor.

4. Shaft: The shaft is connected to the rotor and extends from the motor. It is used to transmit the mechanical motion to the external system.

Working Principle of Stepper Motors

Stepper motors operate based on the principle of electromagnetic attraction and repulsion. When electrical current flows through the coils in the stator, it generates a magnetic field. The polarity of this magnetic field depends on the direction of the current flow.

Understanding Stepper Motor Types

Stepper motors come in various types, each with its unique characteristics. The three main types are:

Permanent Magnet Stepper Motors

In permanent magnet stepper motors, the rotor contains permanent magnets, and the stator has electromagnets. Energizing the electromagnets in a specific sequence causes the rotor to move in steps. These motors are known for their high torque and reliability.

Variable Reluctance Stepper Motors

Variable reluctance stepper motors have a toothed rotor and a stator with windings. When the windings are energized, the rotor aligns itself with the magnetic field, resulting in movement. These motors are simple in design but may require more complex control algorithms.

Hybrid Stepper Motors

Hybrid stepper motors combine elements of both permanent magnet and variable reluctance motors. They have a toothed rotor with permanent magnets and two stator windings. Hybrid motors offer a balance of performance and cost-effectiveness.

How Does a Stepper Motor Work?

Stepper motors operate based on the principle of electromagnetism and magnetic attraction. Understanding their key components is essential to grasp their working mechanism:

Step Angle and Resolution

The step angle is the angular distance the motor shaft moves with each electrical pulse. It determines the resolution of the motor—the smaller the step angle, the higher the resolution, and smoother the motion.

Phases and Coils

Stepper motors can have multiple phases, typically two or four. Each phase consists of a coil, and by energizing the coils in a specific sequence, the motor rotates in steps.

Rotor and Shaft

The rotor, also known as the armature, is the moving part of the motor. It is connected to the motor shaft, which is responsible for driving the mechanical load.

Driving Methods for Stepper Motors

The way stepper motors are driven influences their performance and behavior. There are several driving modes commonly used:

Wave drive (one phase on)

In this drive method, known as wave drive, only a single phase is activated at a time. It does indeed have the same number of steps as the full-step drive, but the motor will experience significantly less torque than its rated maximum. Due to the limited torque output, this drive method is rarely used in practical applications.

As shown in the animated figure provided, the motor depicted is indeed a wave drive motor. The rotor in the animation has 25 teeth, and it takes 4 steps to rotate the motor by one tooth position. Consequently, there will be 25 × 4 = 100 steps per full rotation, and each step will cover an angle of 360/100 = 3.6°.

Wave drive is not commonly favored due to the reduced torque compared to other drive methods. Instead, full-step or microstepping techniques are often preferred for applications that require higher torque output and smoother motion. Microstepping, in particular, offers finer resolution and better torque characteristics, making it a more popular choice in many precision control applications.

Full Step Mode

The standard method for full-step driving the motor involves having two phases always on, allowing the motor to provide its maximum rated torque continuously. As soon as one phase is turned off, another phase is turned on to maintain the motor's motion. Both wave drive and single-phase full step are essentially the same, with the same number of steps but a difference in torque.

In wave drive and single-phase full step, the motor takes discrete steps, with each step corresponding to a specific angular displacement. The torque output at each step is different due to the variation in the number of active phases. In wave drive, only one phase is active at a time, resulting in lower torque compared to single-phase full step, where two phases are simultaneously active, yielding higher torque.

It's important to choose the appropriate driving method based on the specific application requirements. Full-step driving is commonly used when maximum torque is needed at each step, while microstepping techniques (like half-stepping or microstepping with sine-cosine waveforms) are used to achieve smoother motion and finer resolution at the expense of lower torque per step.

Half Step Mode

When half-stepping, the drive alternates between having two phases on and a single phase on, effectively increasing the angular resolution of the stepper motor. However, at the full-step position (where only a single phase is on), the motor experiences reduced torque, approximately 70%. To compensate for this loss, the current in the active winding can be increased. The advantage of half-stepping is that it does not require any changes to the drive electronics, making it a convenient option to implement.

For instance, in the animated figure shown above, if we switch to half-stepping, it will take 8 steps to rotate the motor by 1 tooth position. As a result, there will be 25×8 = 200 steps per full rotation, and each step will cover an angle of 360/200 = 1.8°. Notably, the angle per step in half-stepping is half that of the full step.

Half-stepping provides finer control over the motor's position, making it ideal for applications that require higher precision and smoother motion. However, it is essential to consider the trade-off in torque when selecting the appropriate stepping mode for a specific application. By adjusting the current appropriately, the motor's performance can be optimized to suit the desired operating conditions.


Microstepping, commonly known as sine-cosine microstepping, involves approximating a sinusoidal AC waveform for the winding current in step motors. This is typically achieved using chopper-drive circuits. Although sine-cosine microstepping is the most prevalent method, other waveforms can also be utilized. Regardless of the waveform employed, as microsteps become smaller, the motor's operation becomes smoother, significantly reducing resonance in both the motor and any connected parts. This enhanced smoothness is crucial in achieving precise positioning.

The reduction in step size is a significant and fundamental feature of step motors that makes them ideal for positioning tasks. For example, modern hybrid step motors are often rated so that the travel of each full step (e.g., 1.8 degrees per full step or 200 full steps per revolution) remains within 3% to 5% of the travel of every other full step, as long as the motor operates within its specified ranges. Many manufacturers demonstrate that their motors can maintain this 3% to 5% equality even when step size is reduced from full stepping to 1/10 stepping. However, as the microstepping divisor number increases, step size repeatability may degrade.

At significant step size reductions, it is possible to issue numerous microstep commands before any motion occurs, and the motion can resemble a "jump" to a new position. To mitigate such missed steps, some stepper controller ICs utilize increased current, especially when the peak current pulses in one phase would otherwise be very brief. This approach helps to ensure smoother motion and minimize positioning errors. Gear reducers can also be employed to increase the positioning resolution of the motor.

Overall, microstepping and the ability to reduce step size significantly are essential advantages of step motors, making them valuable for precise and controlled positioning applications.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Stepper Motors

Advantages of Stepper Motors

Stepper motors offer several advantages that make them well-suited for specific applications:

1. Precise Positioning

The ability to move in discrete steps allows stepper motors to achieve precise positioning. This precision is crucial in applications such as 3D printing, CNC machines, and robotics.

2. Open-Loop Control

Stepper motors operate in an open-loop system, meaning they do not require feedback to determine their position. This characteristic simplifies the control circuitry and reduces costs.

3. High Torque at Low Speeds

Stepper motors deliver higher torque even at low speeds, ensuring smooth and consistent motion. This feature is valuable in applications that demand controlled acceleration and deceleration.

4. No Slippage

Unlike traditional motors, stepper motors do not experience slippage. This trait makes them ideal for situations where maintaining precise position and avoiding missteps are critical.

Disadvantages of Stepper Motors

● Limited high-speed capability.

● Potential for losing steps under high loads.

● More significant power consumption at standstill.

● May produce audible noise and vibrations.

Applications of Stepper Motors

Stepper motors find diverse applications across various industries. Some common uses include:

1. 3D Printing

In 3D printers, stepper motors control the movement of the print head and the build platform, enabling the precise layer-by-layer deposition of materials.

2. CNC Machines

Stepper motors power the movement of the CNC machine's cutting tools and worktable, ensuring accurate machining and intricate designs.

3. Robotics

Stepper motors play a vital role in robotics, enabling the precise control of joints and movements in robotic arms and legs.

4. Camera Lens Control

In photography and cinematography, stepper motors are utilized for autofocus and zoom control in camera lenses, providing smooth and precise adjustments.

5. Medical Equipment

Stepper motors are used in medical equipment such as pumps and scanners, where precise control and reliability are essential for patient care and diagnosis.

6. Textile Machinery

They are used in textile machinery for controlling thread tension and positioning.

7. Consumer Electronics

Stepper motors are found in devices like cameras, printers, and disk drives.

8. Security Systems

Stepper motors play a role in surveillance cameras and access control systems.

9. Aerospace

In aerospace applications, stepper motors are used for precision control in various systems.

Tips for Optimizing Stepper Motor Performance

To fully leverage the potential of stepper motors, consider the following optimization tips:

Proper Power Supply

Ensure that the stepper motor is powered with a stable and appropriate voltage to prevent performance issues.

Proper Voltage and Current

Ensure that the stepper motor is operated at the appropriate voltage and current levels specified by the manufacturer. This ensures optimal performance and prevents damage to the motor.

Use Microstepping

Microstepping is a technique that divides each full step into smaller sub-steps, providing smoother motion and reducing vibrations. This is especially useful in applications requiring ultra-fine movements.

Select the Right Driver

Choosing the right stepper motor driver is crucial for efficient motor operation. Factors to consider include maximum current, step resolution, and communication interface.

Maintain Cooling

Stepper motors can generate heat during operation, so adequate cooling should be provided to prevent overheating and ensure extended motor life.

Regular Maintenance

Perform regular maintenance checks to ensure the motor's mechanical components are in good condition and properly lubricated.

Microcontroller Selection

Select a suitable microcontroller with the right interfaces and capabilities to control the stepper motor effectively.

Troubleshooting Common Stepper Motor Issues

Skipping Steps

Skipping steps may occur if the motor is overloaded or driven beyond its capabilities. Reduce the load or adjust the driving parameters to prevent this issue.


Stepper motors can generate heat during operation, so adequate cooling should be provided to prevent overheating and ensure extended motor life.

Noise and Vibration

Noise and vibration can result from improper driving or mechanical resonance. Use dampening materials and adjust the driving mode to reduce noise and vibration levels.

Future Trends in Stepper Motor Technology

As technology continues to advance, stepper motors are also evolving to meet new demands and challenges. Some potential future trends include:

Integrated Electronics

Stepper motors may incorporate more advanced electronics, such as integrated drivers and controllers, simplifying the overall system design and reducing external components.

Energy Efficiency

Efforts are being made to optimize stepper motor designs for higher energy efficiency, leading to reduced power consumption and environmental impact.

Advanced Control Algorithms

Developments in control algorithms aim to enhance stepper motor performance, precision, and adaptability, making them suitable for even more diverse applications.


Stepper motors are indispensable devices that offer precise control over motion, making them essential in various industries and applications. Understanding the basics of stepper motors, their working principles, and driving methods is crucial for effectively implementing them in projects. As technology progresses, we can expect stepper motors to become more efficient, versatile, and integrated into advanced systems, driving innovation and enhancing automation across multiple sectors.


1. How do stepper motors differ from regular motors?

Stepper motors move in discrete steps, providing precise control over positioning, while regular motors offer continuous rotation.

2. Can stepper motors be used for high-speed applications?

Stepper motors have limitations in high-speed applications due to their discrete step movements. For high-speed requirements, alternative motor types may be more suitable.

3. What factors determine the torque output of a stepper motor?

The motor design, the number of phases, and the current supplied to the coils are primary factors that influence the torque output of a stepper motor.

4. Are stepper motors reversible?

Yes, stepper motors are inherently reversible by reversing the direction of the electrical pulses supplied to the coils.

5. How do stepper motors handle varying loads?

Stepper motors may experience issues with varying loads, such as skipping steps or reduced accuracy. Proper load considerations and driving parameters can help mitigate these challenges.

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