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What Makes a Motion Control System Intelligent?

Head of Motion Control Patrik Gnos examines maxon's EPOS4 controller demo.

May 03, 2018      
Adrian Venetz, maxon motor

What would a motor do without control? Exactly: Almost nothing. With a only a power source, you can get a brushed DC motor to turn — but that’s about it. In the countless highly specialized applications in which maxon motors are used, precision control is the backbone of the system. Yet sometimes it is almost forgotten that maxon not only develops and distributes motors and gearheads, but also the matching controllers — in a dedicated department called Motion Control.

“Yes, sometimes we do feel a little let down when people always write about the motors and never about controllers,” says Patrik Gnos, the head of the department. Then he adds, grinning: “This also gives us an additional push to surpass ourselves.”

Motion control system from maxon motors

One of the many controllers: the ESCON Module 50/8 motherboard.

In 2017, maxon sold 843,000 controllers, 70% more than the year before. This sharp increase is largely due to a manufacturer of large diesel engines, to whom maxon supplies special pump systems — consisting of motor, electronics and software — for the reduction of harmful emissions. About 1.3 million units of these small pump systems have been sold so far.

Because the engineers at maxon succeeded in significantly reducing the manufacturing costs of the drive system, the order quantities skyrocketed.

“Of course that makes us very proud,” says Patrik Gnos. Forty five people are working in the Motion Control department today — electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, physicists, computer scientists. A lot of their work revolves around the topic of control algorithms. What does that mean?

Maxon motor EPOS4 controller

Compact and reliable: an EPOS4 controller.

Algorithms as recipes for motion control

An algorithm is a work instruction, i.e., a clear sequence of commands for achieving a specific goal. The recipe for a cake is a good example of an algorithm. Such algorithms can be cleverly constructed — or not so cleverly.

For example, when baking a cake, you could mulishly perform each step by itself, without thinking of the next one. However, you would waste a lot of time and end up with chaos in the kitchen. It might be clever to preheat the oven before the dough is ready, or to clean up while the cake is in the oven.

Drive systems also need software with work instructions for the hardware. And the smarter the programming of the control algorithm is, the more reliable and efficient the system will be. In ideal cases, smart programming may even eliminate the need for additional hardware, such as sensors.

“This is were we come in with our know-how,” explains Gnos. “An algorithm brings intelligence into a drive system.”

Patrik Gnos, head of motion control at maxon, with Markus Stoop

Head of Motion Contgrol Patrik Gnos in discussion with colleague Markus Stoop.

Constantly optimizing motion control

And in the Motion Control department, optimizing algorithms is a constant task. “When customers get the feeling that we are providing them with the perfect controller, we’ve already spent a lot of time thinking about how to improve it even further,” Gnos says.

The Motion Control team is in a constant exchange of information with our customers. “This consulting service is one of maxon’s greatest strengths,” says Patrik Gnos. It is divided into presales support and after-sales support.

Gnos describes a typical case in pre-sales support: “The customer tells us about the required functionality for their drive system. Then we help them to choose the right controller.”

maxon continues to support customers after they have purchased their drive systems. “This can be about something very simple — like a cable that’s plugged into the wrong jack,” Gnos says. Or maybe the integration into a higher-level controller is not working as desired. “This is why it is extremely important to us to consult with and support our customers before they order a product,” he adds, noting that this support by maxon is highly valued all over the world.

From a manufacturer of components to a systems provider

Patrik Gnos is very happy with the path maxon motor has taken. For more than 20 years, he has been an advocate for not just selling individual components, but to instead offer tailor-made drive systems.

With a laugh, the head of the Motion Control department adds: “I’d love to change the name, too: Just maxon instead of maxon motor. Because maxon can do so much more than build motors.”

Editor’s note: This article is a special sponsored submission by maxon motor ag and appears in driven: The maxon motor magazine.