The basic difference between a traditional stepper and a servo-based system is the type of motor and how it is controlled. Steppers typically use 50 to 100 pole brushless motors while typical servo motors have only 4 to 12 poles. A pole is an area of a motor where a North or South magnetic pole is generated either by a permanet magnet or by passing current through the coils of a winding.
Steppers don't require encoders since they can accurately move between their many poles whereas servos, with few poles, require an encoder to keep track of their position. Steppers simply move incrementally using pulses [open loop] while servo's read the difference between the motors encoder and the commanded position [closed loop], and adjust the current required to move.
drawing courtesy of National Instruments
Some performance differences between Stepper and Servos are the result of their respective motor design. Stepper motors have many more poles than servo motors. One rotation of a stepper motor requires many more current exchanges through the windings than a servo motor. The stepper motor's design results in torque degradation at higher speeds when compared to a servo. Using a higher driving bus voltage reduces this effect by mitigating the electrical time constant of the windings. Conversely, a high pole count has a beneficial effect at lower speeds giving the stepper motor a torque advantage over the same size servo motor.
Another difference is the way each motor type is controlled. Traditional steppers operate in the open loop constant current mode. This is a cost savings, since no encoder is necessary for most positioning applications. However, stepper systems operating in a constant current mode creates a significant amount of heat in both the motor and drive, which is a consideration for some applications. Servo control solves this by only supplying the motor current required to move or hold the load. It can also provide a peak torque that is several times higher than the maximum continous motor torque for acceleration. However, a stepper motor can also be controlled in this full servo closed loop mode with the addition of an encoder.
Steppers are simpler to commission and maintain than servos. They are less expensive, especially in small motor applications. They don't lose steps or require encoders if operated within their design limits. Steppers are stable at rest and hold their position without any fluctuation, especially with dynamic loads.
Servos are excellent in applications requiring speeds greater than 2,000 RPM and for high torque at high speeds or requiring high dynamic response. Steppers are excellent at speeds less than 2,000 RPM and for low to medium acceleration rates and for high holding torque.
Servo control systems are best suited to high speed, high torque applications that involve dynamic load changes. Stepper control systems are less expensive and are optimal for applications that require low-to-medium acceleration, high holding torque, and the flexibility of open or closed loop operation.
Many manufacturers specialize in low-cost, inexpensive stepper products that deliver baseline performance at a bargain price. These companies often source the designs and/or manufacturing from overseas partners such as China, with limited technical support.
A small number of U.S. based tech companies design, manufacture and sell higher performance stepper motor systems that rival more expensive servo controls. Advanced Micro Controls Inc (AMCI) is such a company, boasting over 15 years of complete stepper solution design and manufacturing.