Advances in Precision Motorized Positioning Systems: Selection Criteria

Motion drive and control technologies are advancing rapidly. This means engineers have access to an expanding spectrum of options to leverage previously unattainable performance and form factors.

Rapidly evolving production processes have driven needs for motion control systems that provide higher accuracy, speed, resolution, and repeatability. The motion industry has responded with an expanding palette of technologies, including new types of mechanisms, novel position and force feedback technologies, and groundbreaking electromechanical actuation technologies. Together these are enabling new mechanisms and form-factors that in turn propel fresh ideas for manufacturing. Applications include mission-critical deployments in automation, laser processing, optical inspection, photonics alignment, semiconductor metrology, and medical device and micro-machining applications.

A similar feedback loop of application-demand-and-industry-response animates the laboratory research market, where swiftly advancing scientific endeavors necessitate ever finer and faster control of motion. Here, we see advanced motion technologies at the foundation of today’s Nobel-winning super-resolution microscopies, single-molecule biophysics investigations, and the latest materials and photonics developments.

Digital light sheet microscopy can provide time resolved 3D images of biological processes, critical for progress in neuroscience research. In addition to lasers and optics, it relies on several advanced precision positioning technologies. (Image: Wikipedia)

Today’s broadening spectrum of industrial and research applications has yielded a similarly wide variety of motion technologies — more than a single article can review comprehensively.  But it means that designers and motion control engineers in scores of industries have access to precision motorized positioning systems that fit or even enable their applications. These systems provide very few limitations on travel, precision, repeatability, and speed. Following is an overview of the more prominent types of motorized precision-positioning systems and some of their news.

Precision Linear Actuators

A precision linear actuator is defined as a positioning device that creates motion in one degree of freedom, and typically does not include a guiding system for the payload. For this discussion, we are interested in electrically-driven units, though, of course, manual micrometer-driven are common, along with screw-driven, pneumatic and hydraulic variants for lower-precision applications. A number of drive technologies can generate linear motion:

Electro-Mechanical Actuators

These are typically based on linear shafts driven by rotational electromagnetic motors via lead screws or ballscrews. Rotary motion of the motor is converted to linear displacement. The actuators have a generally cylindrical format. Small versions are used to replace micrometers or precision screws, conferring automated actuation.

The motors used in these actuators are typically either stepper motors or DC servomotors. Stepper motors actuate a toothed rotor within a toothed, surrounding stator. The most common type — the permanent magnet stepper motor — uses a rotor composed of a magnetized material. By configuring the magnetic windings of the stator so that groups of its teeth can be specifically magnetized, the rotor is caused to rotate in steps.  It will hold position at these full step positions without power. Partial steps can be achieved by partially energizing the windings. Consequently, a driving mode that yields “mini” or “micro” steps can be implemented, multiplying the stepping resolution of the motor.

DC servo motors are conceptually simple: a magnetized rotor within a magnetized stator, both of which have a North and a South pole. The poles of each are attracted to or repelled by each other, causing rotation to an equilibrium orientation, just as a compass is caused to orient itself with the Earth’s magnetic poles. By varying the magnetization of the rotor or stator or both electromagnetically, such as switching their polarities by using a brushed or electronic commutation approach, the motor can be made to spin freely and, with the addition of a position feedback encoder, provide precise positioning with exceptional responsiveness. Brushless DC motors, with electronic commutation rather than commutation through carbon brushes, provide enhanced lifetime, especially in high-dynamic applications and can be used to provide a high static torque without  issues.

Stepper motors can be operated open- or closed-loop, meaning without or with position feedback. A stepper motor can be actuated through any specified number of steps in either direction and offers a high probability of achieving them, though certainty can only be achieved through the addition of a position encoder. Rotary encoders keep track of the position of the rotating motor; linear encoders directly encode the output position of the driven linear shaft, eliminating backlash and other errors that might otherwise accumulate in the drivetrain where a rotary encoder cannot observe them. Linear actuators with linear encoders are uncommon, but offer unbeatable bi-directional repeatability for sensitive applications.

Piezoelectric Actuators

Extremely fine positioning resolution can be achieve by piezoelectric actuators. There are several types:

Piezo stack actuators are exquisite, layered structures of specialized ceramic interleaved with metallic electrodes. The piezo ceramic has the unique property of expanding in a controllable manner with the application of an electrical field. These actuators provide short travel ranges (about 1% of their length), sub-nanometer precisions, high forces, and sub-millisecond response.  These are the mainstay of today’s advanced nanotech applications, both in laboratory research and in industrial applications, such as semiconductor manufacturing and genomic sequencing.  Piezo stack actuators are inherently non-magnetic, solid state, and vacuum-friendly, with no wear processes.

Piezo stack actuators can be integrated in flexure guiding systems with motion amplifiers to provide longer travel ranges and multi-axis motion if required.  Wire EDM cut flexures provide state-of-the-art guiding precision along with virtually friction free motion and zero wear and maintenance.  During life testing for the Mars Mission, NASA achieved 100 billion cycles of motion without failures.

Ultrasonic piezomotors are monolithic piezo ceramic structures that are stimulated at their resonant frequency, typically above 100kHz, causing them to flutter on a submicron scale. A friction tip formed or bonded at a resonant node conveys this fluttering oscillation to a workpiece that rides in bearings. The workpiece thereby experiences a force that drives it one direction or the other. These motors can achieve many millimeters of travel and extraordinary speeds in a very small package. PI’s patented PILine® ultrasonic piezomotors, for example, can provide speeds to half a meter per second and step/settle times of a few milliseconds in some applications. Another key attribute is these motors’ automatic self-locking behavior at rest and even when unpowered. This prevents drift and dither of the driven stage. Ultrasonic piezomotors can provide an application-enabling alternative to classical motors when small dimensions, high speed, and unrivaled energy efficiency are important. Like piezo stack actuators, they are non-magnetic and vacuum-compatible.



(left) Ultrasonic motor high-speed actuator for OEMs (Image: PI)

(right) Video> Working principle of ultrasonic linear and rotary motors (Image: PI)

Inertia drives are another type of piezomotor. These use tiny piezo ceramic elements that are actuated in a sawtooth pattern, driving a shaft or other actuated element via a friction coupling.  The sloped portion of the sawtooth actuation is what provides the motion; the rapid retraction breaks the stiction of the coupling and the actuated element does not retract with the piezo ceramic element. Artful design can achieve silent, virtually stepless operation and long travels together with precision to the nanoscale and self-locking for high stability when stationary.  Examples include PI’s U-Motion series of ultra-compact open- and closed-loop stages, and PIShift actuators.

Piezo ratchet motors are a special form of inertia motors based on the stick-slip effect. A small piezo ceramic actuator embedded in a spring-loaded mechanism drives a precision lead screw. A slow expansion phase results in a small rotation of the screw (see animation). When the piezo element has reached its maximum expansion, a much shorter contraction phase follows – too fast for the screw to follow, because of its inertia.

Open and closed-loop operation is possible. When exact position control is required, an optical encoder integrated into the actuator housing feeds the information back to a closed-loop controller. Resolution in the nanometer rage is feasible. Advantages are the compact size, self-locking design, and high holding forces (100N) compared to the size. Drawbacks are the slow speed – making the drive a good option for motion control applications in confined spaces with low dynamic requirements – such as laser tuning, alignment of optics, and opto-mechanical equipment, and a great choice for replacing mechanical micrometers.

Walking piezomotors are yet another breed. These use four or more piezoceramic fingers which actuate in a stepping sequence to drive a workpiece in a desired direction. Between steps, sub-nanoscale actuation can be achieved. High power-off holding forces and essentially unlimited travel characterize these designs, exemplified by PI’s NEXACT and NEXLINE technologies. The usual non-magnetic and vacuum-friendly attributes apply. These have proven to be enablers in sensitive optical positioning applications where carefully established positions must be maintained with nanometer stability without power for months or years.


(left) A compact actuator based on the PiezoWalk principle (Image: PI)
(right) Video> Multiple operating modes of a PiezoWalk linear actuator (Image: PI)

Linear Motor Actuators

By attaching a linear servo motor (which can be thought of as a rotary DC motor sliced lengthwise and laid flat) to linear guidance and an output shaft, direct linear actuation of very high speeds can be achieved. Linear DC motors can have a multitude of North/South magnetic pairs, depending on how much travel is needed. These serve the role of the stator in a rotary motor. Gliding along them to generate force is a three-phase coil assembly. The phases are commutated electronically to generate smooth motion in the desired direction, ensuring long life.


(left) A voice-coil-driven linear actuator for closed-loop position and force control applications. Advantages are fast acceleration, high speed, and long life. (Image: PI)
(right) Video> Physics behind a voice coil drive (Image: PI)

A related type of linear actuator is driven by a voice coil motor: a nested pair of cylindrical electromagnetic coils which attract or repel each other along their mutual axis. These provide travels on the order of 25mm and provide extraordinary speeds and accelerations for small loads.  Such mechanisms are very long lived. Voice coil actuators, like PI’s V-270 series, can offer impressive step/settle times owing to their high responsiveness, and their direct actuation of the motion shaft in its low-friction bearings offers exquisite force control as well when an optional tip-force sensor is incorporated. V-270 series actuators’ sophisticated industrial digital controller offers bumpless switching between a variety of position, velocity, force, and mixed servo modes, which makes them ideal for production applications including calibrated force generation and testing of touch-sensitive devices.

Linear Translation Stages

A linear or translation stage builds on the principles of a linear actuator, but adds a platform or workpiece for attaching an application load, or for stacking additional stages to form a multi-axis configuration. The stage’s workpiece is a precision component with a linear bearing for guidance.

A linear translation stage restricts the application load to a linear single degree of freedom.  An ideal linear stage completely restricts three axes of rotation and two axes of translation, thus allowing for motion on only one translational axis. In reality, there is no perfect guiding system, and every linear motion will also bring about rotary / tilt errors (angular deviation) and motion components in two unwanted linear degrees of freedom (runout). The capability of linear stages to provide high precision linear motion with minimized runout is critical to the success of industrial and scientific applications, such as semiconductor manufacturing, research and industrial biotech instrumentation, materials science, aerospace, beam line instrumentation, and photonics instrumentation.

Motorized linear stages consist of a platform and a base, joined by some form of guide or linear bearing in such a way that the platform is restricted to linear motion with respect to the base.  The position of the moving platform relative to the fixed base is typically controlled by a linear actuator of some form. The most common method is to incorporate a lead screw or ball screw passing through a lead nut in the platform, as described for linear actuators.

However, as the drive-technology options have expanded, novel linear stages that incorporate the latest drive technologies have been introduced. These yield advantages of importance to specific applications, such as non-magnetic actuation or package-size benefits.  For example, PI’s U-751/M-686 microscopy stage provides both higher and lower speed capabilities than typical stepper-motor microscopy stages, and incorporates a linear encoder for 100nm-scale bi-directional repeatabilities, all without the bulky overhanging stepper-motor/lead screw assembly that projects from the side of each axis of conventional microscopy stages.


(left) A low profile XY motor stage for microscopy applications. The ultrasonic ceramic motors are compact and self-clamping, providing extremely good long term stability without position drift. (Image: PI)
(right) Video> Ultrasonic-motor drive principle. Ultrasonic motors provide a very large dynamic range from a few nanometers/second to 100’s o mm/second. (Image: PI)

For motion and positioning in multiple axes, individual positioning stages can be combined or parallel-kinematic hexapods with up to 6 degrees of freedom of motion can be used.

Bigger is not always better.

The need for miniaturization in the semiconductor and medical device industry also drives the requirements for smaller motion systems. Smaller also means lower mass and the potential for higher acceleration and throughput, especially when combined with today’s most advanced actuation technologies.

Linear Positioning Stages with Piezomotors

A new generation of piezo ceramic linear motors allows for the construction of matchbox to thumbnail sized linear stages with nanometer resolution and millisecond step / settle times.

The direct drive avoids mechanical components, such as gears and lead screws, making for reliable and high-resolution drives down to a few nanometers. Depending on the drive principle, high velocity, high forces, and/or high resolution are achieved.

Miniature linear positioning stages with high-speed ultrasonic ceramic linear motor and linear encoder feedback are shown below.


(left) Q-motion miniaturized linear and rotary positioners based on the stick-slip effect. Nanometer precision is feasible, the drives are self-clamping when powered-off. (Image: PI)
(right) Video> Operating principle of stick slip inertia motor (Image: PI)

Long Travel – Industrial Applications

On the other hand, some industrial automation processes, such as flat panel testing, and laser processing, require very long travels past one meter with high speed and low runout errors. Air bearing stages with linear motors have emerged as the gold standard for these applications.

Air Bearing Linear Stages – Planar XY Stages

Air bearing stages replace mechanical bearings with a frictionless air film and maximize throughput while providing the ultimate level of precision, especially for multi-axis motion.  Planar designs use one reference base plane on which magnetically or vacuum preloaded pucks are floating for both the X and Y axes. H-bridge, three-motor designs provide the highest precision, and can be further improved with active yaw control when equipped with three linear encoders and advanced motion controllers. The benefit is vastly improved orthogonality and straightness. Air bearing stages are usually driven by magnetic linear or torque motors that provide smooth motion without negative cogging effects.


(left) A planar air bearing XY positioning stage with active yaw control for improved straightness of motion (Image: PI)
(right) Video> Operating principle of an air bearing stage (Image: PI)

High-Speed Stages with Linear / Torque Motor Direct Drive

Linear and torque motors can also be combined with mechanical bearings. This combination is often used in industrial applications when the smoothness and straightness/flatness of motion is not quite as critical as with air bearings. Linear motors provide an excellent combination of reliability, precision, and speed.

Their high dynamics ensures high throughputs of automated tasks in testing systems, for example, in the semiconductor industry. They also increase efficiency, for example, in electronics production / assembly lines or laser processing.


(left) V-551 translation stage with 3-phase linear motor (Image: PI)
(right) Video> Physics behind a 3-phase motor (Image: PI)

High-Resolution Linear Encoder Feedback

Unlike motion systems that are run by rotary stepper and servo motors and lower precision rotary encoders, linear motors require linear positional feedback systems. A linear encoder is a digital position transducer that directly measures linear motion where it occurs as opposed to a rotary encoder mounted at the end of a drive train. The linear encoder reads the actual position as close to the point of interest as possible, and therefore, the resulting accuracy and repeatability of the payload is higher.  Linear encoders contain a linear track and a read head. The linear track can range in length from a few mm to several feet. Most encoders are based on an optical grating, however, lower cost magnetic encoders are still available. While resolution in the sub-nanometer range is common, accuracy is typically limited to 1 micron per 100mm. However, this can be improved significantly with modern controllers if calibrated and compensated for with look up tables or polynomial error correction. Incremental linear encoders are still prevalent, due to their interfacing simplicity and higher possible resolution down to the picometer range if used with electronic interpolators, but absolute position encoders are catching up with nanometer resolution models becoming much more affordable.

Rotation Stages

Rotation stages consist of a platform that rotates relative to a base. The platform and base are joined by some form of bearing which restricts motion of the platform to rotation about a single axis.

A variety of motors and drive principles can be employed, from stepper-motor driven worm gear designs to direct-drive closed-loop torque motors.  Low profile piezo motor stages provide self-locking capabilities with zero jitter and drift and requiring no holding current at rest.

Precision motorized rotation stages are used in applications such as fiber-optical alignment, semiconductor inspection, bio-medical applications, and X-ray crystallography.

Air-Bearing Rotation Stages

Air bearings use a thin film of pressurized air to provide an exceedingly low friction load-bearing interface between surfaces. The two surfaces do not touch. As they are contact-free, air bearings avoid the traditional bearing-related problems of friction, wear, particulates, and lubricant handling, and offer distinct advantages in precision positioning and in high-speed applications, where the elimination of backlash and static friction are critical.


A goniometer is an instrument that either measures an angle or allows an object to be rotated to a precise angular position. A positioning goniometer or goniometric stage is a device used to rotate an object precisely about a fixed axis in space.  It is similar to a linear stage, however, rather than moving linearly with respect to its base, the stage platform rotates partially about a fixed axis above the mounting surface of the platform. Positioning goniometers typically use a worm drive with a partial worm wheel fixed to the underside of the stage platform meshing with a worm in the base. The worm is rotated by a motor.

Goniometers are often used in crystallography and in X-ray diffraction to rotate the samples.  They are also useful in (fiber) optic alignment applications.

6 DOF – Parallel Kinematic Systems: Hexapods / PlanarPods

In order to achieve precision at the micron and sub-micron level in multi-axis motion applications, hexapod parallel positioners have become popular in the last two decades. Hexapods effectively reduce the footprint and moving mass of a traditional serial kinematic stacked-stage positioning system while increasing stiffness and responsiveness. This together with the arbitrary, user defined center of rotation and a large clear aperture make them the positioning system of choice in mission-critical applications, including laser processing, photonics alignment and micro-machining in medical devices and other applications.


(left) Vacuum compatible hexapod 6-axis positioning system (Image PI)
(right) Video> Hexapod parallel-kinematics approach compared to traditional stacked multi-axis stage (Image: PI)

Hexapods, by definition, are six-legged parallel-kinematic mechanism (PKM) motion systems.  In their most common form consisting of two platforms, a fixed base platform and a second movable platform, which are connected and supported by six independent legs (struts or links) that expand and contract in parallel. A similar 6-axis design, called SpaceFab, is based on a top platform connected to three XY linear stages with three passive struts. It provides similar performance to a hexapod, yet allows for a lower profile and longer XY travel ranges (with reduced angular motion).

Coordinated motion of all struts enables the movable platform, and devices mounted to it, to move in any direction, operating in 6-D relative to the base platform. With 6-DOF, the secondary platform is capable of moving in three linear directions, lateral (X), longitudinal (Y), and vertically (Z), and the three angular directions (pitch, roll and yaw), by the legs. Because hexapods have all six degrees of freedom, they can perform manipulations that encompass total freedom of motion in a relatively compact space, with high stiffness and (when properly designed) without moving/sweeping cables that can break and foul.

Advanced designs include servo-motor-driven systems for moving large optics or mirrors, piezo-based units for nanometer precision control of processes, and non-magnetic and vacuum-compatible versions.


(left) Sub-palm-sized 6-axis parallel-kinematic positioning system (Image PI)
(right) Video> Hexapods are ideal for multi-axis motion simulation and stabilization. Applications include drone testing, simulation of hand tremors and vehicular motions for imaging subsystem design and validation. (Image: PI)

Recent hexapod designs provide extremely high stiffness and rigidity of their components and all moving parts, such as its bearings, joints, and drive screws.  These characteristics result in high natural frequencies which make these new hexapods capable of extreme accuracy, and an ideal tool for precision machining, photonics and optics alignment, metrology and medical applications.

One such hexapod is the miniature 6-axis Parallel Kinematics Hexapod Nano-Alignment System, from Physik Instrumente, which can deliver more than 10 lbs. of force and motion in all six degrees of freedom.  Resolution is as low as 50 nanometers with actuator encoder resolution of 5nm and travel ranges to 40mm linear and 60 degree (rotation), and a velocity of 10 mm/sec.  The hexapod’s high level of accuracy is a combination of extremely precise parts, precision assembly and testing, and sophisticated algorithms built into its vector motion controller that take into account the exact tolerances of each strut and joint, and provide precise coordinates to each of the six actuators. This unit can be used for manufacturing and part placement, alignment of optical components and lasers, microscopy applications and neuroscience that require high precision.

If minimized dimensions are of the essence, the combination of inertia-type piezo motors with the compact SpaceFab design allows for nanometer precise 6-axis motion that fits in the palm of a hand.

Vacuum Compatible Positioners

Vacuum applications are increasingly more important for many fields of research and industrial manufacturing. Requirements span from vacuum levels from 10-3 mbar to 10-9 mbar.  While piezo ceramic drive units can easily be modified for extreme vacuum, an increasing number of motorized positioning devices also being incorporated successfully into a widening range of vacuum applications where long travel and high precision motion is needed. Positioning systems specifically developed for vacuum operation must meet a number of criteria. Vacuum chambers only offer limited space and therefore require a compact design.

The selection of suitable components is crucial for the vacuum-compatibility of a positioning system. The body of the positioning device must be designed for placement in closed compartments to avoid outgassing causing virtual leaks. Holes, as well as screws, need to be vented, and a reduction of the surface is desired. Air pockets, such as in under mountings, must be avoided as they considerably delay pump-down to target pressure or even make generating a stable vacuum impossible.

Such a vacuum-compatible positioning device is the M-824 hexapod, a 6-Axis micropositioning and alignment system that provides high resolution motion in six degrees of freedom. It combines multi-axis motion to 45 mm (linear) and 25 degrees (rotation) with sub-micron resolution and repeatability, ideal for alignment and precision positioning tasks. The greatest advantage of this vacuum-compatible positioning device is its compact size compared to conventional six-axis positioning systems, a fact that is especially beneficial in applications in vacuum chambers where space is at a premium. Typical applications focus on semiconductor technology, multi-axis alignment of optics, X-ray microscopy, and X-ray monochromators.


Authors: Stefan Vorndran and Scott Jordan, PI (Physik Instrumente) L.P.

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