Domestic power tools begin to overheat after a while; surgical power tools are no different but with more significant consequences. This article shows how maxon has been working with the medical profession to combat this problem, writes Matt Dean, maxon medical sales engineer. 

Motorised medical hand tools are used every day in theatres all over the world. The tools cut, slice, grind and drill the harder parts of the human body. Picture the scene; a surgeon needs to mend a broken bone by inserting a metal plate with ten fixing screws.

As they start drilling, the temperature of the hand tool starts to get warm. By the time the 10th screw is ready, the handle of the surgical tool is so hot it cant be held comfortably.

This is unacceptable; no surgeon would want to use such a device. Keeping motors cool in surgical hand tools is vital, and as motor speeds increase, it becomes more challenging.

Aside from friction, there are two primary sources of loss that cause a motor to get hot: electrical heat and iron loss. 

Electrical heat losses 

When DC motors deliver torque they require current. This current causes the motor winding to heat up. The more torque the motor produces, the more current is needed and the higher the winding temperature.  

In continuous operation, the motor winding can reach temperatures up to 155°C, which results in a housing temperature around 120°C. These sorts of temperatures are much higher than the human skin can tolerate, around 50°C is about the limit. The electrical heat losses increase with the square of the current.

However, if a motor is running at only half its nominal current, then temperatures are more moderate (usually under 50 °C) and suitable for contact with human skin. For motor selection, this usually means oversize it.

However, the hand tool must be easy to control and hold, so the smaller and lighter the motor, the better the device feels when in use. Therefore, merely oversizing the motor is not the best option.

The above considerations are based on continuous operation, where the maximum temperature is only reached after 10 minutes or so. Hand-held devices, however, are usually run in intermittent operation, with the on-time measured in seconds or a few minutes.

This helps with the selection of smaller motors, but we still must consider the continuous operation point. The continuous operation point is based on the effective load current (RMS, the root mean square) over the entire load cycle. The mean heat build-up is equivalent to that caused by continuous operation with the RMS load torque. 

Iron losses  

A motor can become too hot to touch, even at no load, i.e. the current draw and electrical heat losses are very low. The heat comes from the iron losses (Eddy current losses). Eddy current losses increase with the square of the motor speed, irrespective of load/current.

For hand-held devices, this can become a problem with grinding and milling tools that run at speeds of several tens of thousands of revolutions per minute (rpm). High-speed motors are specifically designed to minimise eddy current losses.

They are typically built with fewer magnetic poles, ironless windings, and ultra-thin iron plates with a low hysteresis in the magnetic return. The maxon ECX SPEED program combines these special characteristics.

With their long design and diameters from 16 to 22 millimetres, these brushless DC motors are perfect for hand-held devices that operate at speeds significantly upward of 10,000 rpm. 

PWM control and motor inductance 

Heat generation in a motor depends on more than just torque, speed and construction. It also depends on the design of the pulse-width-modulated (PWM) controller and the setting of the control parameters.

Ironless windings have a very low inductance, which results in a low electrical time constant. As a result, the current responds rapidly to changes in the voltage, which is desirable if dynamic behaviour is a design goal.

However, if such a motor is controlled with a PWM output stage, which is what most controllers have, then the motor current follows these fast voltage changes.

This can cause a large current ripple. While PWM voltage and current ripples do not affect the mechanical behaviour of a motor, the motor basically 'sees' only the mean current and voltage.

Peak currents in the ripple cause the motor to heat up. Similarly, rigid control loop settings cause strong, rapid current responses with a corresponding heat build-up.

Possible countermeasures to minimise current ripples are:

  • Reduce the supply voltage of the PWM power stage as far as speed requirements and the application type permit;
  • Increase the PWM frequency to give current ripples less time to develop;
  • Install an additional inductance (motor choke) in series with the motor connectors. This increases the electrical time constant and attenuates the current response. This last option is not very attractive, as it increases cost and requires extra installation space;
  • Select soft control parameters. maxon controllers account for the low inductance of maxon DC motors. They operate at high PWM frequencies between 50 and 100 kilohertz and have sufficient additional inductance for most motors and situations.

It may be possible to lower the temperature even further by decreasing the supply voltage until it was close to the required minimum. 

Case study 

A UK based medical hand tool manufacturer was having problems with excessive heat build-up when the motor was running at high speed. They contacted maxon, and ultimately, the solution came in two parts:

  1. We correctly tuned the motor using the latest maxon motor driver. All maxon motor drivers have an autotune function that runs through a series of moves and calculates the optimum tuned parameters.
  2. We reduced the PWM voltage, so it was just high enough to reach the maximum required speeds. This is calculated by using both the speed constant (kV rpm/v) and the speed/torque gradient (rpm/mNm).

When using motors in high-speed medical hand tools, it is always going to be a challenge delivering the desired power requirements, without the generation of excessive heat.

maxon specialises in the development and production of high-speed motors and gearboxes for such applications. Our products are reliable, low-vibration, and sterilisable.

It provides all these features yet maintain efficiency levels, even in diameters as low as 4mm. By following a few simple guidelines, and by using motors with the highest power density, it's possible to meet all the design requirements. 

maxon medical

maxon drives are used in numerous medical applications. Our motors perform reliably and with the best possible quality in high-precision devices such as active implants, insulin pumps, surgical robots, power tools, respirators, ventilators and prostheses.

Drive components for medical technology applications must meet demanding requirements. Precision, sterilisability, smooth running and long service life, as well as low heat build-up in DC and EC drives are essential.

In close partnership with our customers, we develop the perfect drive system based on a modular, standard solution or create a fully customised solution tailored to the customer's specifications. Maxon is ISO 13485 certified.

More information can be found on the links below.

maxon medical products and applications | maxon group

Drive systems for medical technology | maxon group

Contact Matt on or 01189 733337 to discuss your medical application.