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All change for motor control as more engineers outsource

All change for motor control as more engineers outsource Precision motor giant reports "sea change" in attitudes to building controllers.

The market leader in high-precision DC drives, maxon motor, has noticed a sudden surge in the number of design engineers specifying matching controllers for their DC brushed and brushless motors. Traditionally, the world-class engineers who have relied upon maxon products down the years - in fields as challenging as space exploration, surgical instruments, advanced robotics and Formula 1 racing - would place such intense demands upon their controllers that it often made sense to build them in-house. Now, however, advances in off-the-shelf controller technology have reversed the situation - with an increasing number of engineers viewing home-making motion control electronics as a waste of time, money and effort... not to mention an unnecessary risk.

maxon senior sales engineer Paul Williams explains: "With the quality available in controllers now, we're suddenly seeing a lot of engineers compare that cost to the time and money they'd spend developing in-house... and the savings are simply huge."These days you have immense functionality, with all kinds of hardware and connections - and energy efficiencies as high as 95% -  on something affordable that's not much bigger than a stamp! It's a no-brainer, really.

"It is easy to overlook the work and investment that has gone into their development not just in engineering, components and technical design, but also the certification of the unit; CE, EMC, communication standards, electrical safety and so on. When developing a controller from scratch, the cost and time involved in these things alone are often much higher than you'd think. What's more, buying a controller that's completely optimised for your motor  - with in-built protection against overcurrent, excess temperature, under and over-voltage, transients and short-circuits - cuts out a whole lot of risk.

"I used to see a lot of expensive motors burned out at the prototype stage because of simple errors wiring the in-house controller. Thankfully, that's now increasingly a thing of the past."

Good things, small packages
Among the new generation of miniaturised, high-performance controllers that has changed the motion control landscape so dramatically is maxon's highly popular 36/2 ESCON DC servo motor controller. The maxon engineers' initial claims that the tiny 55 x 40mm controller represented a "breakthrough" have certainly been supported by its performance in the market, with design engineers flocking to take advantage of its dynamic, 4-quadrant control capabilities for brushed DC motors up to 72W. A variety of operating modes, including open and closed loop speed control, current control and bonus functions like speed-ramping, make the ESCON a versatile performer at speeds up to 150,000 rpm.

Nonetheless, Paul Williams believes it is the controller's widespread compatibility and ease of use which - along with its tiny dimensions - have been the biggest difference to engineers designing new technology. "It's absolute child's-play to configure," he enthuses. "Just plug it into your PC's USB port and away you go. You don't need any external hardware, and we can even supply pre-assembled startup cables if you like. The thing is, it's such a neat little package so it's really easy to tuck it away in your device and hook it up to your existing design. Job done." A sister controller, ESCON 50/5, will be launched in the coming days - extending the same level of functionality and convenience to both brushed and now brushless motors up to 250 watts.

Although off-the-shelf controllers are becoming ever smaller and more sophisticated, many applications still require something unique - be it a particular shape and size, unusual wiring, protective shielding against extreme conditions or even bespoke software. Maxon bridges this gap by offering a full customisation service for all its control products - a move so successful that more than half its UK controller orders are now custom-specified.

Paul Williams continues: "Controllers like the ESCON 36/2 are naturally exceptional in their own right, but often a new application needs something extra special. We're all engineers, so there's nothing we like more than a challenge - whether it's to fit a certain space, survive temperature and vibration or simply to integrate seamlessly with existing firmware. It's not just for big customers, either - we offer all kinds of customisation to companies ordering barely a handful of controllers each year.

"It's always great to get a call about a demanding new application - helping design engineers achieve the impossible is what we do every day."
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