A servomotor is a closed-loop servomechanism that uses position feedback to control its motion and final position. The input to its control is a signal (either analogue or digital) representing the position commanded for the output shaft.
The motor is paired with some type of encoder to provide position and speed feedback. In the simplest case, only the position is measured. The measured position of the output is compared to the command position, the external input to the controller. If the output position differs from that required, an error signal is generated which then causes the motor to rotate in either direction, as needed to bring the output shaft to the appropriate position. As the positions approach, the error signal reduces to zero and the motor stops.
The very simplest servomotors use position-only sensing via a potentiometer and bang-bang control of their motor; the motor always rotates at full speed (or is stopped). This type of servomotor is not widely used in industrial motion control, but it forms the basis of the simple and cheap servos used for radio-controlled models.
More sophisticated servomotors use optical rotary encoders to measure the speed of the output shaft and a variable-speed drive to control the motor speed. Both of these enhancements, usually in combination with a PID control algorithm, allow the servomotor to be brought to its commanded position more quickly and more precisely, with less overshooting.
A servomotor consumes power as it rotates to the commanded position but then the servomotor rests. Stepper motors continue to consume power to lock in and hold the commanded position.
Servomotors are generally used as a high-performance alternative to the stepper motor. Stepper motors have some inherent ability to control position, as they have built-in output steps. This often allows them to be used as an open-loop position control, without any feedback encoder, as their drive signal specifies the number of steps of movement to rotate, but for this the controller needs to 'know' the position of the stepper motor on power up. Therefore, on first power up, the controller will have to activate the stepper motor and turn it to a known position, e.g. until it activates an end limit switch. This can be observed when switching on an inkjet printer; the controller will move the ink jet carrier to the extreme left and right to establish the end positions. A servomotor will immediately turn to whatever angle the controller instructs it to, regardless of the initial position at power up.
The lack of feedback of a stepper motor limits its performance, as the stepper motor can only drive a load that is well within its capacity, otherwise missed steps under load may lead to positioning errors and the system may have to be restarted or recalibrated. The encoder and controller of a servomotor are an additional cost, but they optimise the performance of the overall system (for all of speed, power and accuracy) relative to the capacity of the basic motor. With larger systems, where a powerful motor represents an increasing proportion of the system cost, servomotors have the advantage.
There has been increasing popularity in closed loop stepper motors in recent years. They act like servomotors but have some differences in their software control to get smooth motion. The top 3 manufacturers of closed loop stepper motor systems employ magnetic encoders as their feedback device of choice due to low cost and resistance to vibration. The main benefit of a closed loop stepper motor is the cost to performance ratio. There is also no need to tune the PID controller on a closed loop stepper system.
Many applications, such as laser cutting machines, may be offered in two ranges, the low-priced range using stepper motors and the high-performance range using servomotors.