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Linear motors come into their own

Mr. Anwar Chitayat founded Anorad Corp. by borrowing $2,000, setting up shop in his basement, and putting his ideas to practice. He now holds more than 20 U.S. patents in linear motors, XY stages, robotic manipulators, and computerized controls--all of which form the basis for most of Anorad's products. Mr. Chitayat holds degrees in both Mechanical and Electrical Engineering and was formerly vice president of engineering at Optomechanisms, Inc. These novel ideas have influenced the development and manufacture of more than 30,000 automation equipment systems in use today assembling, inspecting, and testing electronic and communication equipment. He has contributed in chairing and working on ANSI subcommittees for standardization, promoted university-industry partnerships, and was recognized as the 1997 Entrepreneur of the Year Award winner in the category of Technology.

The linear motor, which drives machines at breathtaking speeds and with excruciating

precision, is a technology that was invented before its time. But as we approach the next century, the linear motor has finally come into its own, if market projections are any indication. Anwar Chitayat, CEO of Anorad Corp., estimates that the market for linear motors will grow to $250 million by the year 2000.

Design News: Linear motors have been around for decades. Why did it take so long for the market to recognize their benefits?

Chitayat: If you look back through history, most new technologies have an incubation period. Take robots--it's only been in the past 20 years or so that practical applications for them were identified. Same with linear motors. Early on, the technology was overkill for most applications. If you were a machine-tool designer, what good was it to have a linear motor when there were no cutters available to work at that speed? Today, however, the enabling technologies are now in place. We have cutters and rails and spindles and other components such as controllers and drives that can go at the necessary high speeds, and at the same time we have affordable electronics to sense those speeds and in effect close the loop.

Q: What are the biggest obstacles to overcome in terms of growing the market for linear motors?

A: It's getting people over the fear of something new, which is basically human nature. Historically, most engineers have been accustomed to rotary motors and all of a sudden they are confronted with a completely different kind of technology. Getting people to overcome the fear of learning about something new is our industry's biggest challenge. On the other hand, the more people that have success with linear motors, the more new users will be motivated to look at the technology. Early on, I remember an engineer with one of the automotive companies telling me that linear motors would never work, they'd never be made practical. But once the company saw that Ingersoll having success with the technology, they were back to talk to us. We're seeing a kind of domino effect today in that regard.

Q: Obviously, high-performance metal-cutting machines are an ideal application for linear motors. What are some of the other applications?

A: I think one of the more interesting applications for linear motors is in parts movers, such as in a conveyor sorting system where you may be moving parts in a racetrack fashion around a circle or even up and down through multi-levels. With linear motors, you have a moving magnet and an encoder that tell you exactly where you are--there's no cables or expensive mechanisms to deal with. I think the real power of linear motors is that they are allowing engineers to design systems in ways they never envisioned before.

Q: What is happening with the pricing of linear motors, which have historically been more costly than rotary motors?

A: Traditionally, any new technology is more expensive than the status quo. And it is true that historically the price of linear motors has been more expensive than a rotary motor with equivalent horsepower. But just as with computers, the price of linear motors has been dropping--by about 30% to 40% per year. In fact, in some applications, such as when you're using a high- precision ball screw, the price of a linear motor is equivalent to a rotary motor--and you eliminate the backlash! One reason we have been able to drop the price, of course, is greater volumes. Anorad alone has sold more than 30,000 linear motors. But even more significantly, we're learning to be better at what we do. With each product introduction, we're learning how to design the product better and manufacture it more efficiently. One of the latest developments our company has come up with is the moving magnet technology, which resulted in yet another cost reduction.

Q: What new developments in linear motors can we expect over the next few years?

A: We anticipate that linear motors are going to get much more user friendly, to the point that just about anybody can use them. They will be plug-and-play. For any technology to gain widespread acceptance, people have to be able to use it without a great deal of training. You don't want them worrying about things like how to marry the encoder to the system.

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