Stepper vs Servo Motors: What's the Difference?

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12 May, 2023

Stepper vs Servo Motors: What's the Difference?

Stepper and servo motors are used to control the motion of machines but they are different in design, performance, and applications.


Stepper and servo motors are both popular choices for various applications in industries such as robotics, automation, and manufacturing. These motors work very differently and offer distinct advantages and disadvantages. Understanding their differences is crucial for choosing the right motor for your specific project. In this article, we will explore the basic principles of stepper and servo motors, discuss their individual components, and delve into their unique characteristics. 

Basic Principles of Stepper Motors 

1.1 What is a Stepper Motor?

A stepper motor is a type of brushless DC electric motor that divides a full rotation into a number of equal steps or increments. The motor's position can be precisely controlled without the need for a feedback mechanism because the motor moves in discrete steps based on the input pulses provided by a controller. 

Stepper motors are commonly used in applications requiring precise control of rotation and positioning, such as CNC machines, 3D printers, and robotics.

Stepper Motor NEMA standardAn isolated stepper motor

1.2 Types of Stepper Motors

There are three main types of stepper motors: permanent magnet (PM) stepper motors, variable reluctance (VR) stepper motors, and hybrid stepper motors. 

Permanent magnet stepper motors consist of a rotor containing permanent magnets and a stator with electromagnetic coils. When the coils are energized in a specific sequence, the magnetic field generated by the stator interacts with the magnetic field of the rotor. The interaction results in the rotor rotating in steps. 

Variable reluctance stepper motors have a rotor made of soft magnetic material with no permanent magnets. The stator's coils generate a magnetic field that attracts the rotor teeth, causing the rotor to move in steps. 

Hybrid stepper motors combine the features of both PM and VR stepper motors, offering higher torque and better performance characteristics compared to their counterparts.

1.3 Components of a Stepper Motor

A stepper motor consists of several key components that work together to convert electrical energy into mechanical motion. The main components include the rotor, stator, and motor windings.

The rotor is the rotating part of the stepper motor, which is typically composed of a shaft and either permanent magnets or soft magnetic material. The composition depends on the type of stepper motor. 

In permanent magnet stepper motors, the rotor contains one or more permanent magnets that create a magnetic field. In variable reluctance stepper motors, the rotor is made of a soft magnetic material with teeth that align with the stator's teeth when a magnetic field is generated.

The stator is the stationary part of the motor, which consists of a series of electromagnetic coils arranged around the circumference of the motor. 

These coils, also known as motor windings, are responsible for generating the magnetic field that interacts with the rotor's magnetic field. The interaction of the magnetic fields causes the rotor to rotate in discrete steps.

1.4 Classification of a Stepper Motor

Stepper motors can be classified as either bipolar or unipolar based on the configuration of their motor windings. 

Bipolar stepper motors have two windings per phase, with each winding connected to a separate power source. This configuration enables the motor to generate higher torque, as both windings can be energized simultaneously. However, bipolar stepper motors require more complex control circuitry and may generate more heat due to the higher current flowing through the windings. 

Unipolar stepper motors have a single winding per phase with a centre tap. This configuration simplifies the control circuitry but may result in lower torque output compared to bipolar stepper motors.

2. Basic Principles of Servo Motors

2.1 What is a Servo Motor?

A servo motor is a type of closed-loop control system (position feedback) that consists of a motor, a control unit, and a feedback mechanism, typically an encoder or a resolver. These motors have gearboxes for generating high-speed torque. Servo motors are designed to precisely control the position, velocity, and acceleration of a mechanical system, making them suitable for several applications. All of the servo motor applications require high accuracy, responsiveness, complex algorithms and efficiency including robotics, CNC machines, and automated manufacturing systems.

Suggested Readings: The Motors Inside Autonomous Robots

2.2 Types of Servo Motors

There are two main types of servo motors: AC (alternating current) servo motors and DC (direct current) servo motors. 

AC servo motors are typically used in industrial applications due to their high power output, speed, and efficiency. 

DC servo motors are more commonly found in smaller, battery-operated devices due to their lower power requirements and ease of control.

AC servo motors are further classified as synchronous or asynchronous, depending on the relationship between the rotor and stator magnetic fields. 

Synchronous AC servo motors maintain a constant speed under varying loads and have a rotor that rotates in synchrony with the stator's magnetic field. 

Asynchronous AC servo motors, also known as induction motors, have a rotor that rotates at a speed slightly slower than the stator's magnetic field. It allows the motor to generate torque through the interaction of the rotor and stator magnetic fields.

DC servo motors can be classified as brushed or brushless, depending on the method of commutation used to control the motor's current. Brushed DC servo motors use mechanical brushes to switch the current in the motor windings. Brushless DC servo motors use electronic commutation, providing greater efficiency, reliability, and longer service life compared to their brushed counterparts.

2.3 Components of a Servo Motor

A servo motor is composed of several essential components that work together to achieve precise motion control. These components include the motor, the control unit, and the feedback mechanism.

The motor, which can be either an AC or DC motor, is responsible for converting electrical energy into mechanical motion. AC servo motors typically offer higher power output, speed, and efficiency, making them suitable for industrial applications. DC servo motors are commonly used in smaller devices due to their lower power requirements and ease of control.

The control unit, also known as a servo drive or servo amplifier, is responsible for processing the input signals from the controller, such as position, velocity, or torque commands, and generating the appropriate output signals to drive the motor. The control unit uses pulse-width modulation (PWM) to regulate the motor's voltage and current, allowing for precise control of the motor's speed and torque. It also includes safety features such as over-temperature, over-voltage, and over-current protection to ensure the motor operates within its specified limits.

The feedback mechanism is a crucial component of a servo motor system, providing real-time information on the motor's position, speed, and torque. This information is sent back to the control unit, which compares the actual motor performance with the desired performance and makes adjustments accordingly to minimize any errors. Common feedback devices used in servo motors include encoders and resolvers. 

Encoders, which can be either incremental or absolute, generate digital signals corresponding to the motor's position and speed. Resolvers generate analog signals based on the motor's position and are known for their robustness and resistance to environmental factors, making them suitable for harsh industrial environments.

3. Comparing Stepper and Servo Motors

3.1 Speed and Torque

When comparing stepper and servo motors, it is essential to consider their speed and torque capabilities. It is because these factors directly impact their performance in various applications.

Stepper motors exhibit a relatively constant torque output at low to medium speeds, making them suitable for applications that require precise positioning and low-speed operation. These motors are capable of holding torque at zero speed. However, as the speed of a stepper motor increases, its torque output tends to decrease, limiting its effectiveness in high-speed applications. 

The torque curve of a stepper motor is generally characterized by a peak torque at low speeds, followed by a steady decline as speed increases. A typical stepper motor can operate at speeds up to 1,000 to 2,000 RPM (revolutions per minute), with torque values ranging from a few ounce-inches to several hundred ounce-inches, depending on the motor size and design.

Servo motors are capable of delivering higher speeds and torque outputs compared to stepper motors. Servo control motors maintain a relatively flat torque curve over a wide range of speeds, allowing them to provide consistent performance at both low and high speeds. The maximum speed of a servo motor varies depending on its design, with some models capable of reaching speeds up to 5,000 RPM or higher. Torque values for servo motors can range from a few ounce-inches to thousands of ounce-inches, depending on the motor size and type.

In addition to their higher speed and torque capabilities, servo motors also offer the advantage of continuous torque control. It enables them to dynamically adjust their torque output based on the load requirements of the application. This feature allows servo motors to operate more efficiently and accurately than stepper motors, particularly in applications that involve rapid changes in load or speed.

3.2 Accuracy and Resolution

Accuracy and resolution are critical factors to consider when comparing stepper and servo motors, as they directly influence the motor's ability to perform precise movements and positioning tasks.

Stepper motors inherently offer high accuracy and resolution due to their fixed step angles and open-loop control systems. The step angle, which determines the motor's resolution, is the angular rotation achieved by the motor for each electrical pulse received. Typical step angles for stepper motors range from 0.9 to 1.8 degrees per step, translating to 200 to 400 steps per revolution. 

This means that a stepper motor with a 1.8-degree step angle can achieve a resolution of 200 steps per revolution, allowing for precise positioning without the need for a separate feedback mechanism. However, it is important to note that the actual accuracy of a stepper motor depends on factors such as mechanical and electrical tolerances, as well as the quality of the motor's components and drive system.

Servo motors rely on closed-loop control systems and feedback mechanisms to achieve accurate positioning and motion control. The accuracy of a servo motor is determined by the resolution of its feedback device, which can be an encoder or resolver. High-resolution encoders can provide thousands, or even millions, of counts per revolution, enabling servo motors to achieve extremely precise positioning and motion control. For example, a servo motor with a 1,000,000-count encoder can achieve a resolution of 0.0018 degrees per count, which is significantly higher than that of a typical stepper motor.

In terms of accuracy, servo motors generally outperform stepper motors due to their closed-loop control systems and high-resolution feedback devices. These features allow servo motors to continuously monitor and correct their position, ensuring that the motor remains accurate and stable even under varying load and speed conditions. Additionally, servo motors are less susceptible to issues such as missed steps and stalling, which can negatively impact the accuracy of stepper motors in certain applications.

3.3 Control and Feedback Mechanisms

Control and feedback mechanisms play a crucial role in the performance of stepper and servo motors, as they determine how the motor responds to input signals and maintains its position and motion accuracy. Understanding the differences between these mechanisms can help users choose the right motor for their specific applications.

Stepper motors operate using an open-loop control system, which means they do not require any feedback to control their position or motion system. The motor's position is determined solely by the number of input pulses it receives and its fixed step angle. While this open-loop control system simplifies the motor's design and reduces its cost, it also has some limitations. For example, if a stepper motor experiences a loss of synchronization or missed steps due to external forces, it will not be able to detect or correct the error, potentially resulting in reduced accuracy and performance.

In contrast, servo motors utilize a closed-loop control system, which relies on feedback from an external device, such as an encoder or resolver, to monitor and control the motor's position and motion. The feedback device continuously measures the motor's actual position and compares it to the desired position, allowing the control system to make adjustments as needed. This closed-loop control system enables servo motors to dynamically respond to changes in load, speed, and other external factors, ensuring accurate and stable performance under varying conditions.

The use of feedback mechanisms in servo motors also allows for more sophisticated control strategies, such as velocity and torque control. These strategies enable users to optimize the motor's performance for specific applications, improving efficiency and precision. For example, torque control can be used to maintain a constant force during operations like cutting or pressing, while velocity control can be used to achieve smooth and precise motion in applications like robotics or conveyor systems.

In summary, the control and feedback mechanisms employed by stepper and servo motors significantly impact their performance and suitability for different applications. Stepper motors, with their open-loop control system, are best suited for applications requiring simple and cost-effective positioning solutions. Servo motors, on the other hand, offer greater accuracy, stability, and flexibility due to their closed-loop control system and feedback mechanisms, making them ideal for more demanding and dynamic applications.

4. Applications of Stepper and Servo Motors

Stepper and servo motors are both widely used in various industries due to their unique characteristics and performance capabilities. By understanding the advantages and limitations of each motor type, users can select the appropriate motor for their specific applications.

4.1 Ideal Applications for Stepper Motors

Stepper motors are well-suited for applications that require precise positioning, low-to-medium speeds, and a cost-effective solution. Some of the most common applications for stepper motors include:

3D Printers: Stepper motors are often used in 3D printers due to their ability to provide precise positioning and control at low speeds. The open-loop control system simplifies the design and reduces the overall cost of the printer, making it more accessible to a wider range of users.

CNC Machines: Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machines, such as milling machines, lathes, and routers, utilize stepper motors for their accurate positioning capabilities. The inherent holding torque of stepper motors ensures that the machine maintains its position even when stationary, allowing for precise cuts and movements.

Linear Actuators: In applications where linear motion is required, stepper motors can be coupled with lead screws or belt-driven systems to create cost-effective and reliable linear actuators. These actuators are commonly found in automation equipment, such as pick-and-place machines or packaging systems.

Medical Devices: Stepper motors are used in various medical devices including syringe pumps and lab automation equipment, where precise and controlled movement is necessary. Their low cost and reliable performance make them a suitable choice for manufacturers in the medical field.

Security Cameras: Pan-tilt-zoom (PTZ) security cameras often use stepper motors to control the movement and positioning of the camera. The precise positioning capability and low cost of stepper motors make them an ideal choice for this application.

In summary, stepper motors are an excellent choice for applications that require precise positioning and control at low-to-medium speed ranges, without the need for continuous feedback or high levels of torque. Their cost-effective nature and reliable performance make them a popular choice across a wide range of industries and applications.

Suggested Readings: Stepper Motor Fundamentals 

4.2 Ideal Applications for Servo Motors

Servo motor electronic applicationsServo motor used in various applicationsServo motors are best suited for applications that require high speed, high torque, and precise positioning with continuous feedback. They offer a closed-loop control system, allowing for real-time adjustments and improved performance. Some common applications for servo motors include:

Robotics: Servo motors are widely used in robotic systems due to their high speed, precise positioning, and continuous feedback capabilities. The closed-loop control system allows robots to adapt to changing conditions and make adjustments in real time, ensuring accurate and reliable performance. Examples include robotic arms, autonomous vehicles, and drones.

Machine Tools: High-precision machine tools, such as CNC machining centres and lathes, benefit from the use of servo motors. The high torque and fast response times offered by servo motors enable these machines to perform complex and intricate machining tasks with exceptional accuracy and repeatability.

Automated Manufacturing: In automated manufacturing processes, such as assembly lines and packaging systems, servo motors provide the necessary speed and precision to ensure efficient and consistent operation. The closed-loop control system of servo motors enables real-time adjustments, allowing the system to adapt and respond to changing conditions quickly.

Motion Control Systems: Servo motors are a popular choice for high-performance motion control systems, where precise positioning and speed control are crucial. Applications include camera stabilization systems, gimbal systems, and high-speed conveyor systems, where servo motors ensure smooth and accurate motion.

Aerospace and Defense: The aerospace and defence industries require high levels of precision, reliability, and performance. Servo motors are used in applications such as flight control systems, satellite positioning systems, and missile guidance systems, where their closed-loop control and real-time feedback capabilities are essential.

In summary, servo motors are an excellent choice for applications that demand high speed, high torque, and precise positioning with continuous feedback. Their closed-loop control system and ability to make real-time adjustments make them a valuable choice for industries and applications where accuracy and performance are of the utmost importance.

5. Choosing the Right Motor for Your Project

Selecting the appropriate motor for a specific application is critical to achieving optimal performance and efficiency. Understanding the differences between stepper and servo motors, as well as the factors to consider when making a choice, is essential to ensure that the motor you select meets the requirements of your project.

5.1 Factors to Consider

When choosing between stepper and servo motors, several factors must be taken into account to ensure that the motor will fulfil the application's requirements. Some of these factors include:

Performance Requirements: Consider the speed, torque, and accuracy needed for your application. If high speed and torque, along with precise positioning and continuous feedback, are crucial, a servo motor may be the better choice. However, if your project demands lower speed and torque levels, and high-resolution open-loop control is acceptable, a stepper motor might be more suitable.

Control System: The control system is another critical factor to consider. Servo motors rely on closed-loop control systems, which provide continuous feedback and real-time adjustments. Stepper motors use open-loop control systems that do not require feedback. Assess whether your application needs a closed-loop control system for optimal performance or if an open-loop system will suffice.

Cost and Complexity: Servo motors tend to be more expensive and complex compared to stepper motors, primarily due to their closed-loop control system and the need for additional components, such as encoders. When deciding between the two, evaluate your project's budget and whether the increased cost and complexity associated with servo motors can be justified based on the performance requirements.

Operating Environment: Consider the environment in which the motor will be operating. Stepper motors can generate more heat due to their constant current draw, which may be an issue in specific applications or environments. Conversely, servo motors are more energy-efficient and generate less heat, making them suitable for applications where temperature management is essential.

Size and Weight Constraints: The size and weight of the motor may be crucial factors in certain applications, such as robotics and aerospace. Servo motors generally have a higher power-to-weight ratio, meaning they can provide more power in a smaller and lighter package compared to stepper motors. Evaluate your project's size and weight constraints to determine which motor type is the most appropriate.

By carefully considering these factors and understanding the differences between stepper and servo motors, you can make an informed decision and choose the motor that best suits your project's requirements. This will ensure optimal performance, efficiency, and reliability, ultimately contributing to the success of your application.

5.2 Cost and Complexity

When choosing a motor for your project, it is essential to consider the cost and complexity associated with each option. By understanding the differences in cost and complexity between stepper and servo motors, you can make an informed decision that balances performance requirements with budget constraints.

Stepper Motors: Stepper motors are generally more affordable and less complex than servo motors. Their open-loop control system does not require additional components such as encoders, which contributes to their lower cost. Furthermore, the relatively simple design of stepper motors makes them easier to integrate into various applications, reducing the overall complexity of the system.

Servo Motors: Servo motors, on the other hand, tend to be more expensive and complex due to their closed-loop control system and the additional components required for precise positioning and feedback. Encoders and other sensors, as well as the need for more advanced control electronics, can significantly increase the cost of servo motors.

When assessing the cost and complexity of each motor type, it is essential to consider the specific requirements of your project. If high precision and feedback are necessary, the increased cost and complexity of a servo motor may be justified. However, if your application can tolerate lower accuracy levels and does not require continuous feedback, a stepper motor may be a more cost-effective and straightforward choice.

By carefully evaluating the cost and complexity of stepper and servo motors, along with other critical factors such as performance requirements, control systems, and operating environment, you can choose the right motor for your project and achieve a balance between performance and affordability.


FeatureStepper MotorsServo Motors
TorqueHigh speed low torqueHigh-speed motor torque
Types of magnetStepper motors use conventional magnetsServo motors use rare earth magnets like Neodymium and Alnico
Size and weightSmall and lightweightLarge and heavy
Speedlow to medium speedlow to high speed
Operating systemopen-loop systemclosed-loop system
Power consumptionLess power consumptionHigh power consumption
Pole countHigh pole count (50-100)Low pole count (4-12)
Position controlLowMore

Understanding the differences between stepper and servo motors is essential for making informed decisions when selecting the right motor for your project. By considering factors such as speed and torque, accuracy and resolution, control and feedback mechanisms, as well as cost and complexity, you can choose a motor that meets the specific requirements of your application. Both stepper and servo motors have their unique advantages and ideal applications, so selecting the right motor ultimately depends on the demands of your project.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is the main difference between stepper and servo motors?

The primary difference between stepper and servo motors lies in their control systems. Stepper motors operate using an open-loop control system, which means they do not receive feedback on their position. Servo motors, on the other hand, use a closed-loop control system with real-time feedback to maintain precise positioning.

When should I choose a stepper motor over a servo motor?

A: Stepper motors are generally more suitable for applications that require lower cost, simple control, and where positional accuracy is less critical. Examples include 3D printers, CNC machines, and small robotic systems.

When should I choose a servo motor over a stepper motor?

Servo motors are ideal for applications that demand high precision, dynamic response, and continuous feedback. They are commonly used in robotics, automation systems, and high-performance motion control applications.

Can I replace a stepper motor with a servo motor in my project?

While it is possible to replace a stepper motor with a servo motor in some cases, it is crucial to consider the specific requirements of your project. Replacing a stepper motor with a servo motor may require additional components, such as encoders and more advanced control electronics, as well as changes to the control system.

Are stepper motors more energy-efficient than servo motors?

Energy efficiency varies between motor types and specific models. In general, stepper motors tend to consume constant power regardless of their load. It can lead to energy waste when the motor is not under load. Servo motors, on the other hand, typically consume power proportional to the load, making them more energy-efficient in some applications. However, energy efficiency should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, considering the specific motor models and operating conditions.


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Jacek F. Gieras. (2011). Permanent Magnet Motor Technology: Design and Applications. CRC Press Taylor & Francis Group

Bela G. Liptak. (2005). Instrument Engineers' Handbook, Volume Two: Process Control and Optimization. CRC Press Taylor & Francis Group