The Little Things I Didn’t Know About Small DC Motors

We’ve all taken apart a small toy and pulled out one of those little can motors. “With this! I can do anything!” we proclaim as we hold it aloft. Ten minutes later, after we’ve made it spin a few times, it goes into the drawer never to be seen again.

It’s all their fault

It always seems like they are in everything but getting them to function usefully in a project is a fool’s errand. What the heck are they for? Where do people learn the black magic needed to make them function? It’s easy enough to pull out the specification sheet for them. Most of them are made by or are made to imitate motors from the Mabuchi Motor Corporation of Japan. That company alone is responsible for over 1.5 billion tiny motors a year.

More than Just the Specs

In the specs, you’ll find things like running speed, voltage, stall current, and stall torque. But they offer anything but a convincing application guide, or a basic set of assumptions an engineer should make before using one. This is by no means a complete list, and a skip over the electrics nearly completely as that aspect of DC motors in unreasonably well documented.

The paint mixers high running speed and infrequent use make it a decent candidate for hooking directly to the motor.
The paint mixers high running speed and infrequent use make it a decent candidate for hooking directly to the motor.

The first thing to note is that they really aren’t meant to drive anything directly. They are meant to be isolated from the actual driving by a gear train. This is for a lot of reasons. The first is that they typically spin very fast, 6,000 – 15,000 rpm is not atypical for even the tiniest motor. So even though the datasheet may throw out something impressive like it being a 3 watt motor, it’s not exactly true. Rather, it’s 3 N*m/s per 15,000 rotations per minute motor. Or a mere 1.2 milliwatt per rotation, which is an odd sort of unit that I’m just using for demonstration, but it gives you the feeling that there’s not a ton of “oomph” available. However, if you start to combine lots of rotations together using a gear train, you can start to get some real power out of it, even with the friction losses.

The only consumer items I can think of that regularly break this rule are very cheap children’s toys, which aren’t designed to last long anyway, and those powered erasers and coffee stirrers. Both of these are taking for granted that their torque needs are low and their speed needs are high, or that the motor burning out is no real loss for the world (at least in the short term).

This is because the motors derate nearly instantly. Most of these motors are hundreds of loops of very thin enameled wire wrapped around some silicon steel plates spot welded or otherwise coerced together. This means that even a small heat event of a few milliseconds could be enough to burn through the 10 micrometer thick coating insulating the coils from each other. Practically speaking, if you stall a little motor a few times in a row you might as well throw it away, because there’s no guessing what its actual performance rating is anymore. Likewise, consistently difficult start-ups, over voltage, over current, and other abuse can quickly ruin the motor. Because the energy it produces is meant to spread over lots of rotations, the motor is simply not designed (nor could it be reasonably built) to produce it all in one dramatic push.

Making Contact

Pololu has the clearest picture of the different kind of brushes inside these small motors.
Pololu has the clearest picture of the different kind of brushes inside these small motors.

This brings me to another small note about these tiny motors. Most of them don’t have the carbon brushes one begins to expect from the more powerful motors. Mostly they have a strip of copper that’s been stamped to have a few fingers pressing against the commutator. There’s lots of pros to these metal contacts and it’s not all cost cutting, but unless you have managed to read “Electrical Contacts” by Ragnar Holm and actually understood it, they’re hard to explain. There’s all sorts of magic. For example, just forming the right kind of oxide film on the surface of the commutator is a battle all on its own.

It’s a weird trade off. You can make the motor cheaper with the metal contacts, for one. Metal contacts also have much lower friction than carbon or graphite brushes. They’re quieter, and they also transfer less current, which may seem like a bad thing, but if you have a stalled motor with hairlike strands transferring the pixies around the last thing you’d want to do is transfer as much current as possible through them. However, a paper thin sheet of copper is not going to last very long either.

So it comes down to this, at least as I understand it: if bursts of very fast, low energy, high efficiency motion is all that’s required of the motor over its operational life then the metal strip brushes are perfect. If you need to run the motor for a long stretches at a time and noise isn’t an issue then the carbon brush version will work, just don’t stall it. It will cost a little bit more.

Take Care of Your Tiny Motors

Here is one of these can motors being restrained properly. Only torque on the case itself is restrained. The motor is otherwise free to move.
Here is one of these motors being restrained properly. Only torque on the case is restrained. The motor is otherwise free to move.

To touch one other small mechanical consideration. They are not designed to take any axial load at all, or really even any radial load either. Most of them have a plastic or aluminum bronze bushing, press-fit into a simple stamped steel body. So if you design a gearbox for one of these be sure to put as little force as possible on the bearing surfaces. If you’ve ever taken apart a small toy you’ve likely noticed that the motor can slide back and forth a bit in its mounting. This is why.

Lastly, because most of these motors are just not intended to run anywhere near their written maximum specifications it is best to assume that their specifications are a well intentioned but complete lie. Most designs work with the bottom 25% of the max number written on the spreadsheet. Running the motor anywhere near the top is usually guaranteed to brick it over time.

These are useful and ubiquitous motors, but unlike their more powerful cousins they have their own set of challenges to work with. However, considering you can buy them by the pound for cheaper than candy, there’s a good reason to get familiar with them.

Tips For Buying Your First Milling Machine

If you’re interested in making things (and since you’re reading this, we’re going to assume you are), you’ve almost certainly felt a desire to make metal parts. 3D printers are great, but have a lot of drawbacks: limited material options, lack of precision, and long printing times. If you want metal parts that adhere to even moderately tight tolerances, a milling machine is your only practical option. There is, after all, a very good reason that they’re essential to manufacturing.

However, it can be difficult to know where to start for the hobbyist who doesn’t have machining experience. What kind of milling machine should you get? Should you buy new or used? What the heck is 3-phase power, and can you get it? These questions, among many others, can be positively overwhelming to the uninitiated. Luckily, we — your friends at Hackaday — are here to help give you some direction. So, if you’re ready to learn, then read on! Already an expert? Leave some tips of your own in the comments!

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Some Tips About Tips

hackadayTipsaboutTips02

Gather, boys and girls, while we take a moment to talk about submitting projects via the Hackaday Tips Line. Come across something really cool that you think deserves a mention on our page? Let us know about it! Did you yourself make something really cool? Tell us about that, too! It doesn’t matter if it’s a project that’s been sitting on some dark corner of the Internet for a few years. If we haven’t seen it yet, we want to.

Don’t think your project is good enough for Hackaday? You’re probably too self-critical. We’re after hacks: it’s the idea that counts. Not polished? No problem. The only thing that needs to be complete is your description of the hack.

Stick with us after the jump; we’ve got plenty of tips about tips to help you out.

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What’s happening at LIFE.hackaday lateley

corkIf you haven’t been over to LIFE.hackaday lately, maybe you should check it out.

You could be learning how to be a hero with a wine cork, or how to easily break string without scissors(or your teeth). Need new ways to mount your tablet? We’ve got you covered. However, the story that is probably most important right now is how to keep your ice cream from getting that freezer burnt section on the top.

Five plugins and tips to secure your WordPress blog


How do you protect your own blog from getting hacked? There’s never a foolproof answer, but with some added tools and caution, you can make your website a little safer from getting into harm’s way. Cats Who Code has five plug-ins and tips you can use to protect your WordPress install. Some of the tips are common sense advice that can apply to anything related to technology – such as making backups often and using strong passwords. Others include suggested plugins that can help you verify whether your WordPress install has any security holes, or small tricks to hide the version of WordPress you’re using. Do you have any useful plugins or tricks to share to keep your blog safe from hackers?

[via Digg]