Driving Stepper Motors at High Speed

Get the most out of your electrical system

Stepper motors are one of the simpler motors to implement in electronics designs where a level of precision and repeatability is needed. Unfortunately, the construction of stepper motors places a rather low-speed limitation on the motor, much lower than the speed the electronics can drive the motor. When high-speed operation of a stepper motor is required, the difficulty of implementation increases, as a number of factors begin to come in to play.

Stepper Motor
Dolly1010 / Wikimedia Commons 

High-Speed Stepper Motor Factors

Several factors become significant design and implementation challenges when you drive stepper motors at high speeds. Like many components, the real-world behavior of stepper motors is not ideal and a far cry from theory. Stepper motors' max speed will vary by manufacturer, model, and the inductance of the motor with speeds of 1000-3000 RPM attainable.

For higher speeds, servo motors are a better choice.

The following are the main factors that impact stepper motors driving at high speeds.


Any moving object has inertia, which resists changes in the acceleration of an object. In lower speed applications, it's possible to start driving a stepper motor at the desired speed without missing a step. However, attempting to drive a load on a stepper motor at high speed immediately is a great way to skip steps and lose the motor's position.

Except for lightweight loads with little inertial effects, a stepper motor must ramp up from low speed to high speed to maintain position and precision. Advanced stepper motor controls include acceleration limitations and strategies to compensate for inertia.

Torque Curves

The torque of a stepper motor is not the same for every operational speed. It drops as the stepping speed increases. The reason for this is based on the operational principals of stepper motors.

The drive signal for stepper motors generates a magnetic field in the coils of the motor to create the force to take a step. The time it takes the magnetic field to come up to full strength depends on the inductance of the coil, drive voltage, and current limitation. As the driving speed increases, the time the coils stay at their full strength shortens, and the torque the motor can generate drops off.

Drive Signal

To maximize the force in a stepper motor, the drive signal current must reach the maximum drive current. In high-speed applications, the match must happen as quickly as possible. Driving a stepper motor with a higher voltage signal can help to improve the torque at high speeds which are automatically applied in constant current stepper driver solutions.

Dead Zone

The ideal concept of a motor allows it to be driven at any speed with, at worst, a reduction of torque as the speed increases. Unfortunately, stepper motors often have a "dead zone" where the motor cannot drive the load at a given speed. The dead zone is due to resonance in the system and varies for every product and design.


Stepper motors drive mechanical systems, and all mechanical systems can suffer from resonance. Resonance occurs when the driving frequency matches the natural frequency of the system. Adding energy to the system tends to increase its vibration and loss of torque, rather than its velocity.

In applications where excessive vibrations will have issues, finding and skipping over the resonance stepper motor speeds is especially important. Even applications that can tolerate vibration should avoid resonance where possible. Resonance can make a system less efficient in the short term and shorten its life over time.

Step Size

Stepper motors have a few driving strategies available that can help them adapt to different loads and speeds. One tactic is micro-stepping, which lets the motor make smaller than full steps. These micro steps have decreased accuracy, but they also make stepper motor operation quieter at lower speeds.

Stepper motors can only drive so fast, and the motor sees no difference in a micro-step or a full step. For full-speed operation, you'll usually want to drive a stepper motor with full steps. However, using micro-stepping through the stepper motor acceleration curve can significantly decrease noise and vibration in the system.