This year, Software Motor Company was awarded Gold in the Energy and Sustainability category and the Smart Building Solutions subcategory with their SMC Smart Motor System. The system is the world’s most reliable, intelligent, and energy-efficient system in the world, featuring automated controls and cloud connectivity. Hot off SMC’s win, Executive Chairman Ryan Morris visits the Inspiring Minds podcast to discuss the advanced motor system that brought home gold and its journey to the 2020 Edison Awards.
The conception of the SMC Smart Motor System began with a question: how can motors be improved to increase efficiency and reduce waste? Today, almost half of the electricity worldwide is consumed by electric motors. Of these motors, ninety-eight percent are AC induction motors, invented by Nikola Tesla approximately one hundred and thirty years ago. The issue with this is that induction motors only perform at maximum efficiency when at full load; a vast majority of the time, they perform at only around fifty percent. The most important problem, however, lies not with lower efficiency but with the induction motor’s lack of sustainability; the inability to perform consistently at maximum efficiency means that significant amounts of electricity are wasted during operation. Ryan estimates that around twenty percent of the world’s electricity is lost to this lack of efficiency, through heat loss or thermal entropy. This wasted electricity can have serious overreaching effects on the environment.
Sustainability and the future of energy have been passions of Ryan’s since a young age. He recounts learning about nuclear fusion from the 1984 docuseries The Voyage of the Mimi, and the immediate interest he took in clean energy and its capacity to free humanity from the threats of climate change while providing unlimited energy for us to thrive. This passion possessed by Ryan and the like-minded individuals at SMC, when confronted with the issue of electricity waste from inefficient motors, gave birth to a mission: “to transform all of the motors in the world to optimally efficient motor systems.”
With this problem and goal in mind, the team at SMC moved into brainstorming solutions through the practice known as first principles thinking or reasoning from first principles. This practice entails boiling a problem down to its most fundamental, basic elements, then reasoning out the solution by building upwards from that basic level. Rather than tackling the issue of inefficient electric motors by tweaking the existing, dated systems, SMC, in Ryan’s words, “fundamentally, at the core, re-architected the motor from the ground up as a software-first architecture.” The solution began with the switched reluctance motor.
Although the original concept was patented in 1838, switched reluctance had gone largely overlooked due to the lack of technology sufficient to control the system. Despite this, the motor was known for particular qualities that made it more attractive than its counterparts, such as a non-linear type of operation that allowed small changes made to the system to have a significant impact on its output. Recognizing the potential of the switched reluctance motor, SMC plunged into solving the issue of developing the hardware and software necessary to make the motor workable, beginning with the core architecture surrounding it.
On the hardware end, advanced simulations were utilized to produce prototypes to tens of thousands of designs in a fraction of the time it takes to produce even a few physical prototypes, allowing for extensive optimization of the motor. Meanwhile, the software control techniques needed to operate it took over two and a half years to develop, partially due to limitations in computing power. According to Ryan, the development of the motor required two key ingredients: the computing power in the digital signal processors to perform the calculations required to shape the electrical current and power electronics advanced enough to support the system. Regarding the latter, he largely credits advancements in research and design, electric vehicles, and wind turbines over recent decades for making the necessary electronics available. The development process, Ryan says, took approximately ten years in total, a majority of which was dedicated to solving hard physics problems at the fundamental level. In fact, it was only around three and a half years ago that the team solved the major software control problem facing them and were able to move into engineering.
The move into engineering is something that Ryan regards as the most important of SMC’s several major milestones on the road leading to their Edison Award win. Approximately two years ago, the SMC Smart Motor System entered into the sales process, which is often long and arduous for high-reliability products. Only six months ago did SMC acquire their Department of Energy and third-party National Science Foundation enrollments and have peer-review studies published proving the energy savings of the system. The device has only just entered its large-scale marketing phase.
Yet, its success at this year’s Edison Awards suggests that prospective innovators should pay close attention to SMC’s methods and techniques in the development process. For those looking to SMC for inspiration, Ryan’s advice is to “never look for shortcuts, just embrace the fact that there has to be a certain sequencing of things, and any shortcuts are only going to get you in trouble.”