The pipette is a basic fluid control tool for transferring tiny amounts of liquids. Electronic or motorized pipettes are an ergonomic alternative to manual pipettes and an efficient way to increase sample throughput with precision and accuracy.

Fig. 1a (left) and 1b (right) show differences between DC motors and stepper motors when pipetting.
Instead of the traditional thumb-controlled pipetting button and manual volume adjustment, electronic pipettes feature a digital interface to adjust volume and a motorized piston for aspiration and dispensing. Because pipetting is typically the first step of a multi-step process, any inaccuracy or imperfection in measuring this tiny amount of liquid adds up through the process and in the end, the failure rate is much higher.

What is the difference between precision and accuracy?

Precision means when you pipet multiple times, you get the same volume dispensed every time. Accuracy means that you hit exactly the volume you targeted without any error. You may always be precise, but you might not always hit the right volume. You must make sure you have both precision and accuracy. This is absolutely critical for the outcome of your experiment to be reproducible.

The heart of any electronic pipette is its motor, which greatly influences precision and accuracy, in addition to several other important factors like envelope size, power, and weight. Design engineers primarily choose stepper linear actuators or DC motors. Ultimately, stepper motors and DC motors have both their strengths and weaknesses.

DC Motor

DC motors are simple electric machines that spin when DC power is applied. They do not require complex electronics to run the motor. However, considering the linear motion requirement for the electronic pipette, a DC motor solution needs an additional lead screw and gearing system to convert rotational movement to linear movement. The DC solution would also need a feedback mechanism in the form of an optical sensor or encoder to accurately control the linear piston position. Some designers may also add a braking system to improve positioning accuracy, due to the high inertia of its rotor.

Use of a DC motor may enhance the overall precision and accuracy of the pipetting system, but it can be an expensive solution.

Stepper Motor

On the other hand, many engineers prefer to use a stepper linear actuator solution due of its ease of integration, performance, and low cost. A stepper linear actuator is comprised of a can stack stepper motor with a threaded rotor and an integrated lead screw which provides direct linear motion in a small package.

Unlike the DC motor, the stepper linear actuator lead screw moves up and down in discrete step increments when electrical pulses are applied. One of the important advantages of using a stepper linear actuator is its ability to be accurately controlled in an open loop system, meaning no expensive feedback device or braking system is required for positioning. (See Figure 1a and b)

If not sized properly, stepper motors can lose steps which would lead to inaccuracies during dispensing. However, this can be easily corrected by ensuring accurate output of the motor to the drive system. Here are some of the key considerations for motor selection:

  • Keep minimum 50 percent safety factor from the speed/force curve;
  • Avoid low frequency resonance points during operation; and
  • Avoid back driving, sudden movements, and external load changes.


Both stepper and DC motors have unique advantages for various applications. While the DC motor concept with a built-in feedback mechanism provides improved precision and accuracy, a step motor concept may be the most cost effective solution for your project. It can be precisely controlled in an open loop system simply by varying the number of input pulses and their frequency. If sized properly for the correct application, a step motor provides the reliability need for precise and accurate dispensing.

This article was written by Anant Bhalerao, Associate Product Line Manager, Portescap, West Chester, PA. For more information, Click Here