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Analog Angle Article

Motor control gets tangible attention at ESC, and an award

It's not news that much of the action on the exhibit floor at the Embedded Systems Conference (ESC) centers of software, development systems, tools and similar. But at the year's event, I also saw a lot of vendor interest (and show-floor traffic) related to motors and motion control. Equally impressive, motor vendor PCBMotor won in the “Editors' Choice” category at the ACE Awards event at ESC.

These weren't speculative exhibits, either, with simulated control loops and simulated motors, in the mode of a “hardware in the loop” presentation promise but without the hardware—implying that the problem is solved, and the reality is a mere technical detail (wink, wink, nudge, nudge). Instead, these were tangible set-ups, supporting a variety of motor types (and we know how many branches the “motor” family tree has: AC or DC, stepper or induction, brushed or brushless, sensor or sensorless, to cite just a few.)

Texas Instruments, for example, showed an array of motor-control solutions ranging from basic, low-level controller to a sophisticated, multilevel, fully networked approach, each with its own set of capabilities and costs (surprisingly modest for the capabilities, BTW). Similarly, Actel had several fully develloped motion-control components and circuit boards, with appropriate algorithms and software, controlling different motors. Both demos included the “clean, fun” software/processor part but also the nasty, tricky MOSFET and MOSFET driver interface where reality has a way of really biting you. And these were not just “small” motors as might be used in an infusion pump; some of the designs had MOSFETs capable of handling tens of amps. And if you want the use their PCB layout Gerber plot and BOM as your starting-point reference design, or even final design, no problem.

Of course, algorithms embedded in firmware are a large part of the motor-control challenge, so IC and hardware vendors are partnering, where they feel it makes sense, with motor experts who understand the imperfections, thermal nuances, and many other vagaries and idiosyncrasies of motors and loads, such as backlash, slip, and even twist between the shaft and load. For example, TI's algorithm takes into account some subtleties in MOSFET turn-on/turn-off characteristics and manages them to greatly reduce losses.

When all of this is combined with the user-friendly GUIs that are now standard, the system engineer who needs to incorporate a better motion subsystem into a product has a much easier time and shorter development cycle, with less risk. For today's project-development teams, those attributes are not are not options, are requirements. ♦

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