In conversation with our President, Dr. Mark Broderick
Piezo Motion has taken high-performance piezoelectric motor technology – which has a legacy of being for limited and high-end precision applications – and made it more accessible, flexible, and modern for today’s engineers to develop their innovative technologies. No longer is piezoelectric technology just relevant to engineers in specialized industries; it’s now available to applications which demand precision motion, with fewer components and non-magnetic parts, enabling a more precise future for the hardware that powers our lives. The founder of Piezo Motion, Dr. Mark Broderick, explains why piezo motion technology is so important today and how he founded the innovative company Piezo Motion.
Let’s start from the top, Dr. Broderick. It would be interesting to learn about the piezoelectric effect and how you’re harnessing that.
Of course. So the word piezo is derived from the Greek word piezein, which means to press or compress. It’s the ability of certain unique materials (for example, piezoceramic) that, when compressed, generate a small electrical charge. To give you a classic example, if you look at a gas-powered barbecue grill, many of them have a rotary switch on the front. As you rotate that switch, it compresses the piezoceramic and produces an electrical discharge, which creates the spark.
The opposite is also true, meaning that if you apply the correct electrical charge, you can get these unique materials to actually change shape. This is referred to as the inverse piezoelectrical effect. So, for instance, if you have a small block of piezoceramic and excite it electrically, you can cause it to change shape (for example, elongate) very slightly. By carefully controlling this change in shape, we can create either a linear or rotary motion. And then, we use that as a basis for developing either a rotary motor or a linear motor.
How did Piezo Motion as a company originate?
I’ve always been interested in biotech, particularly in the area of biosensing, as well as piezoelectric motion control, from my experience working as a neuroscientist and in commercial industries. So back in 2005, I put together a small team of scientists and engineers to develop products.
We started in biosensing, where we successfully commercialized several products. We then gave focus on developing novel concepts for piezoelectrical motion control. After getting some funding, we developed several early piezoelectric motor-based systems, including linear nanopositioning, X-Y-Z nano-manipulator systems, and rotary stages. We sold these devices into various industries, including photonics and life sciences, both in the US and abroad. These products were used for various applications that required very precise movements. For example, one application that everyone would be familiar with would be IVF research, where you need high magnification to fertilize the egg. The procedure is typically performed under a microscope, using micropipettes to apply pressure and suction to fertilize the egg. To do that, you need precise motion control systems. So we put out a range of products that provided that ability and sold them to labs worldwide.
So that was the early days of how we evolved into our motion control technology. In those days, the piezoelectric motors (piezomotors) we developed were somewhat sophisticated, consisting of many parts, and relatively expensive to build. The systems we were selling were going into these very specialized applications, where typically, the customer would pay several thousands of dollars for a complete system. The fact that the piezomotor at the core of the system cost several hundred dollars to build per unit was irrelevant because it was all embedded with the cost of the overall system.
After some years of working in the field, I recognized that substantial commercial opportunities existed into which we could leverage our technology if we could significantly lower our motor manufacturing costs.
To accomplish that, we needed to completely redesign our piezomotor product line. In late 2015, we embarked on an ambitious engineering program. We focused on piezoelectric motors designs that could be manufactured in high volume at low cost but still encompass those intrinsic properties that make piezoelectric motors attractive to the market. We generated a good number of patents along the way.
And that’s what we did. We were able to take the cost of a traditional piezomotor that may be costing up to three or four hundred dollars to manufacture per unit and bring that price down to under fifty dollars.
Doing that opened up whole new markets for the technology, including; industrial, automotive, medical device, and even consumer applications.
During the creation of the initial environment, what were the things you had to consider when you scaled the technology to companies that weren’t necessarily buying it in a tailored environment?
We had to look closely at the designs of our legacy motors and initially identify what parts we could eliminate in the manufacturing process without compromising performance. We ended up with a different design concept, but the underlying intellectual property & technology was very similar. It took some years to do that but ultimately was successful. We essentially reduced the number of parts necessary to build a rotary motor from more than 70 to less than 10. Furthermore, most of the parts could be produced using modern high-volume plastic molding techniques.
Reducing the part count enabled us to change the way we manufacture, bringing down the cost significantly. A significant component of the manufacturing cost for a piezoelectric motor is labor. By reducing the part count so drastically, we were able to slash labor costs.
In the end, we were able to produce a quality product at a lower cost that had the advantages of being scalable, miniaturized, lightweight, and energy-efficient, and yet still retain all of the vital high-performance elements that one would expect from a piezoelectric motor.
With the fewer parts, does that not only impact cost but also simplify it for engineers?
Yes, it makes it simplified for engineers and intrinsically more reliable because if you have fewer parts, you have fewer parts that can fail. So it certainly provides this level of reliability in its simplistic form.
With Medical Science needing new technology in the world we live in today, how is your product benefiting the medical field?
For example, we recently developed a micro-dosing pump. We’ve taken our rotary piezoelectric motor technology and leveraged it to create an extremely accurate and precise peristaltic type pump. We call it a micro-dosing pump because it is capable of very high precision fluid delivery. Without getting too technical, the motor can achieve more than 600,000 steps per rotation, which provides the mechanism for fine control over fluid delivery volume. Indeed the volume delivery is so small it can deliver down to around the single nanoliter, which is one-billionth of a liter.
It’s our first turnkey product using our new motor designs, and we see applications in life science and biopharma, including groups studying vaccines, viruses, and bacteria.
So, although as a company, we’re more focused on building motors and electronics and the software behind that, the turnkey products give customers and users ideas for other applications where they can leverage our motor technology. And I think that that will benefit the company through sales of turnkey products and the awareness this brings to our general customers on ideas on where they can use the technology to improve current designs and applications or develop new ones altogether.
Besides medical technology applications, do you see your precision motion technology shaping other industries as well?
Yes, we’re just scratching the surface. There are many applications for the technology because we’ve taken a classical piezoelectric motor that is regarded as high performance but high cost and brought about a paradigm shift by providing the opportunity for end-users to acquire the technology, and all the benefits that it brings, without that burden of the high cost.
Many of the industries we’re working with use traditional electromagnetic motors, stepper motors, or server motors. Before now, piezoelectric motors were outside of their reach because of the expense. But now, these individuals no longer have to choose a low-cost stepper motor or servo motor. Instead, we can offer them something at an equivalent cost but with performance benefits intrinsic to piezoelectric motor designs.
Some education has to take place because many of our users are design engineers working in different industries, unaware that economical piezoelectric motor technology is now within their grasp. Still, nevertheless, it is an exciting time to present a groundbreaking technology that will impact the various industries we are tackling.
Many companies, especially in the technology space, need to consider global warming and climate change in their work. How is Piezo Motion having an impact in that area?
That’s a good question. There is a growing trend globally towards greener technology. Piezo Motion contributes to that worthy cause because we provide piezoelectric motors that are intrinsically more energy efficient than traditional electromagnetic moments. Furthermore, piezoelectric motors do not rely on rare earth metals in their manufacture.
To give you a practical example, to keep a piezoelectric motor stationary, you switch the power off, and its self-braking torque will maintain its position without consuming electricity. You can’t do that with traditional electromagnetic motor/actuator designs because they need to have power applied to maintain their position. So if you’re looking at a switching mechanism or a valve mechanism where the valve is opening and closing, you can imagine that using a piezoelectric motor that you will be able to switch the power off and save energy at any point where it’s stationary. You only consume energy during a period of motion. And that is a critical benefit to reduce power consumption and increase overall energy efficiency.
This is certainly something that’s recognized with piezoelectric technology and why there is a lot of interest in from the pure basis that you can potentially save significant energy using it.
Can you give an example of some projects you’re working on right now that we can look forward to?
We’ve had interest from several medical robotic companies interested in integrating piezoelectric motion control systems into existing robots. Another project is with a company involved in LIDAR that requires precise motion control of optical mirrors in a very compact form for range determination. There are several other projects ongoing with different customers looking to integrate our technology into various motion control systems.
Where do you see the future of Piezo Motion?
We’re the first company that’s managed to put together an affordable piezoelectric motor and offer both rotary and linear models, which are scalable in size. I see our product portfolio expanding as we work with customers who want something slightly different, maybe a more extended travel range linear motor or a higher torque rotary motor. As we roll out new motor models addressing various applications, I see a growing business with exciting opportunities.