Stepper drives can realize quite precise, incremental motions without position sensors. Sensorless hydraulic motion control is strongly demanded by industry and, therefore, is an established idea in hydraulics for a while. Some concepts have been proposed in the past and a few of them have also been realized and applied in specific cases. But it is expected that digital hydraulics — due to its intrinsic discrete nature — can create new, more advantageous hydraulic versions of stepper drives.

In this paper, a new stepper drive is presented and investigated. It creates the steps by fixed fluid quanta generated by a so called digital flow unit. That unit is realized by a hydraulic cylinder-piston unit which displaces a defined fluid quantum by each limited forward stroke of that piston. The unit is controlled by a fast switching valve which connects the piston areas alternately with the pressure-, tank- and output-line. The return motion is generated by a return spring. Energy saving is accomplished by storing the supply pressure surplus intermediately in the kinetic energy of the piston and converting that energy to displace part of the quantum to the consumer line without hydraulic energy from the supply line. Different detail concepts of this stepper drive are theoretically assessed.

The transient behavior, the performance characteristics and the energy efficiency of a preferred concept are investigated by mathematical modeling and simulation. Furthermore, the main system parameters are identified and corresponding basic dimensioning rules are presented. In a second step, the influence of finite switching times of the valves, the hydraulic impedances of the various flow channels and of the dead volumes and the dynamical properties of the hydraulic cylinder attached to the device, are discussed.

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