Rare Earth Bubble: How Consumer Pressures Lead to Sloppy Engineering


Rare earth elements were the darlings of industrial motion control in the 1990s and early 2000s, providing the power for permanent-magnet synchronous motors. Then a variety of political and economic factors drove the price of rare earth elements up, leading to the boom and bust in rare earth a couple of years ago.

One of the side effects was that the permanent-magnet synchronous motors became super popular. Along with giant TV screens and cars with eight cup holders, these motors were great in some cases — and total overkill in most cases. Kristin Lewotsky said the easy availability of the rare earth elements led to “sloppy engineering” — the use of technology that wasn’t really called for.

In other words, eight cup holders.

What’s wrong with excess cupholders?

But having eight cupholders when your vehicle only carries one or two people 98% of the time isn’t just a harmless luxury. It has costs:

  • The opportunity cost of anything that could have been in the space taken up by those extra cupholders
  • The extra fuel needed to carry those cup holders around
  • The time spent on fitting in additional cup holders instead of working on other possible improvements in the vehicle

We could go on, but let’s not push this metaphor too far. The point is, decisions about industrial motion control shouldn’t be based on fashion, or the upper limit of your resources, or a desire to have the newest and fastest and most powerful stuff.

That’s why we encourage clients who use Indramat and legacy Rexroth servos to keep using them. With proper care, you can keep those babies running safely and efficiently for decades. Let us help you do that.

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