Trending Now: Miniature Sensors

Celebrating the Holiday season is one of my favorite times of the year. Some of the common activities I enjoy include spending time with family and friends, eating a tremendous amount of food (and wondering afterward why I do this to myself year after year), and giving and receiving a few presents. Let’s focus on the presents aspect for a second. The bigger the present the better, right? Well, we know that’s not always the case. That smaller present could very well be the perfect gift.

minifamilyNow let’s shift gears and look at manufacturing. There is a trend in manufacturing, in general, toward miniaturization. Earlier this year I was shown a website, MICRO Manufacturing, that looks across different industries to see how the miniaturization trend is being engaged. One of the more obvious cases is in consumer electronics. It all started taking off with the desktop computer. Following the desktop computer was the laptop. And in the past few years we’ve seen the rise of smartphones and tablets. Now we’re beginning to see smart wearable devices (watches, fitness trackers, glasses, etc.). Who knows what will happen next? I bet we could take a good guess: it’ll be something even smaller.

As manufacturing continues in this direction, the demand for miniature sensors grows. However, miniature sensors aren’t just defined by their small form factor, but also by their precision. Miniature sensors are developed with a clear purpose to meet these manufacturing requirements. For more information, please click here.

And, just like that small present during the Holidays, a miniature, precision sensor could be the perfect solution.

Linear Position Sensors for Valve Actuators

Illustration of Magnetostrictive Linear Displacement Transducer (MLDT) inserted into a gun-drilled cylinder.Today’s petrochemical and process industries, like most industries, are striving to increase their capabilities of automation & control, coupled with condition monitoring, across their entire operation.  Demands for uptime are increasing and the focus on reliability through redundancy and prediction of pending maintenance requires new control and monitoring strategies.  This is nowhere more true than in the case of the sophisticated valves that form the most critical elements of the operation or process.  Operational readiness and confirmation of operation for these valves are indispensable to assure smoother and uninterrupted production…and safety.

Christian Dow has written an interesting article in Valve Magazine that highlights the benefits of linear position sensors when installed in the hydraulic actuators of these valves.  The benefits mentioned in the article don’t apply just for valves, though.  Many of the advantages can be obtained for almost any application where a hydraulic cylinder is the prime mover.

Rise of the Robots – 3 Ways to Be On Their Team

While originally a mixed reviewed 1994 console video game, the recently published report by The Boston Consulting Group titled “The Rise of Robotics”  really made me realize how important it is that we embrace robotics in our manufacturing processes.  And I strongly agree with this statement: “Because robots can sharply improve productivity and offset regional differences in labor costs and availability, they’ll likely have a major impact on the competitiveness of companies and countries alike.”  They studied the growth of the usage of robots in personal, commercial, military and industrial use and the numbers were quite powerful.  Of interest to me is the rise in industrial robotics; doubling in 5 years from $5.8b to $11.0b in 2015.  And the growth is expected to more than double again by 2025 to $24.4b in the industrial space.

What this means for manufacturers, machine builders and component suppliers is we need to make sure our people are trained to support this growth and that we we have strong peripheral technologies to support robots as they grow and expand.  Even today there are some great technologies available in sensors and controls that make robotic integration easier for manufacturing companies.

So here are the three ways to make sure you are your robot’s ally.

  1. Maximize Their Payload!

    No one wants to be treated like they can’t help… especially your robots, they want you to utilize them and feel appreciated.  For most robotics right now, payload size & payload weight is a limiting factor.  Mini sensing products with precision switch points, small form factors and low mass allow for the design of low weight, compact payloads without limiting the functionality or speed of the robot.

  2. Keep them Working!

    A working robot is a happy robot.  By adding flexible tooling or quick-change tooling to the end-effector of a robot you can have one arm perform multiple functions and keep idle arms to a minimum, increasing their value and “happiness.”  Multiple products are out there to allow for this, however there is a technology that allows for sensor connections through inductive coupling that dramatically decreases repair issues and downtime due to tool changer pins.

  3. Remove the Chains!  

    What’s the deal with cable dress packs… they look like really bad suspenders sometimes… you see them, you don’t like how they look, but you need it to keep your pants on… I guarantee that robots don’t like these things either… And with all that flexing something in there will fail regularly.  There are some great technologies to reduce the sensor cables running on the arm and add flexibility and they are supported by the open standard IO-Link (discussed in other posts here!).


So as you integrate robots more and more into the manufacturing we are doing, please start thinking how to align yourself as a robot’s ally.  Because I know I want to be on this guy’s team…

Back to the Basics – Photoelectric Light Source

Welcome to the first in a series of getting back to the basic blogs about photoelectric sensors.

LightTypeAll photoelectric sensors require a light source to operate. The light source is integral to the sensor and is referred to as the emitter. Some light sources can be seen and may be of different colors or wavelengths for instance red, blue, green, white light or laser or one you cannot see, infrared. Many years ago photoelectric sensors used incandescent lights which were easily damaged by vibration and shock. The sensors that used incandescence were susceptible to ambient light which limited the sensing range and how they were installed.

Today light sources use light emitting diodes (LED’s). LED’s cannot generate the light that the incandescent bulbs could. However since the LED is solid state, it will last for years, is not easily damaged, is sealed, smaller than the incandescent light and can survive a wide temperature range. LED’s are available in three basic versions visible, laser and infrared with each having their advantages.

Visible LED’s which are typically red, aid in the alignment and set up of the sensor since it will provide a visible beam or spot on the target. Visible red LED’s can be bright and should be aimed so that the light will not shine in an operator’s eyes. The other color visible LED’s are used for specific applications such as contrast, luminescence, and color sensors as well as sensor function indication.

Laser LED’s will provide a consistent light color or wavelength, small beam diameter and longer range however these are generally more costly. Lasers are often used for small part detection and precision measuring. Although the light beam is small and concentrated, it can be easily interrupted by airborne particles. If there is dust or mist in the environment the light will be scattered making the application less successful than desired. When a laser is being used for measuring make sure the light beam is larger than any holes or crevasses in the part to ensure the measurement is as accurate as possible. Also it is important to ensure that the laser is installed so that it is not aimed into an operator or passerby’s eyes.

Lastly, the infrared LED will produce an invisible, to the human eye, light while being more efficient and generating the most light with the least amount of heat. Infrared light sources are perfect for harsh and contaminated environments where there is oil or dust. However, with the good comes the bad. Since the light source is infrared and not visible setup and alignment can be challenging.

LED’s have proved to be robust and reliable in photoelectric sensors. In the next installment we will review LED modulation.

You can learn more about photoelectric sensors on our website at

Magnetic Linear Encoders – Tape Magnetization Technology

bmlPrecision Tape Magnetization Leads to Precision Position Measurement

The key to ultimate accuracy for any magnetic linear encoder system is the precision of the magnetic encoding on the tape (sometimes called a scale). Sensors inside the encoder read head respond to the strength and position of the magnetic flux coming from the magnetic poles encoded onto the tape. Precise placement of these poles – and just as importantly, the precise shape of these poles – is critical to the ultimate level of accuracy that can be delivered by the encoder system. Any inaccuracy in the position, strength, or shape of these fields will directly influence the accuracy of the encoder’s indicated position. This effect is amplified with increasing gap distance between the tape and the encoder read head. The further away from the tape, the weaker and more indistinct the shape and position of the magnetic poles becomes.

Not All Magnetic Tapes Are Created Equal

Many magnetic encoder tapes on the market are surface magnetized utilizing the conventional parallel magnetization process. This is a straightforward technique that results in an encoder tape that meets performance specifications at close gap settings between the read head and the tape.

A more recent tape magnetization process called Permagnet® produces magnetic poles with improved control over their strength, shape, and location on the tape. The best way to appreciate the advantages of this technology is to compare magnetic scans of some conventionally magnetized tapes to some examples of tapes encoded with the Permagnet® process. Note the visible difference in sharp definition of the magnetic poles that is produced by the newer technology.

Conventionally Magnetized Tape – Sample #1

Sample #1 - Conventionally magnetized tape: 2 mm pole spacing, scanned at a distance of 0.2mm from the tape surface

Sample #1 – Conventionally magnetized tape: 2 mm pole spacing, scanned at a distance of 0.2 mm from the tape surface

Sample #1 - Conventionally magnetized tape: 2mm pole spacing, scanned at a distance of 0.8 mm from the tape surface

Sample #1 – Conventionally magnetized tape: 2 mm pole spacing, scanned at a distance of 0.8 mm from the tape surface

Tape Magnetization with Permagnet® Technology – Sample #2

Sample #2 - Permagnet tape: 2mm pole spacing, scanned at a distance of 0.2 mm from the tape surface

Sample #2 – Permagnet tape: 2mm pole spacing, scanned at a distance of 0.2 mm from the tape surface

Sample #2 – Permagnet® tape: 2 mm pole spacing, scanned at a distance of 0.8 mm from the tape surface.

Sample #2 – Permagnet® tape: 2 mm pole spacing, scanned at a distance of 0.8 mm from the tape surface.

The stronger, more sharply-defined magnetic poles produced by Permagnet® technology enables encoders to be more tolerant of variation in the working distance between the encoder read head and the tape. Reduced dispersion and distortion of the magnetic fields at any distance within the specified working range reduces the influence of distance variation on the accuracy of the position measurement in real-world applications.

Summary of Application Benefits

  • Improved linearity at close working distances for ultimate system accuracy
  • Improved linearity at longer working distances
  • Higher tolerance to deviations in the working distance, with reduced non-linearity
  • Less need to closely control the working distance in the application, saving cost by reducing painstaking setup and alignment effort
  • Full system accuracy, even if gap distance varies during operation
  • Better linearity for any given pole spacing on the tape

Ultrasonic Sensor Reflection Targets

In my previous posts (Ultrasonic Sensors with Analog Output, Error-proofing in Window Mode, and The Other Retro-Reflective Sensors) we covered the Ultrasonic sensor modes and how they benefit in many different types of applications. It is also important to understand the reflection properties of various materials and how they interface with the sensor selected. For example some Photoelectric sensors will have a very difficult time detecting clear materials such as glass or clear films as they will simply detect directly through the clear material detecting what is on the other side giving a false positive target reading. As we know, this is not an issue with an Ultrasonic sensor as they detect targets via a sound wave so clear objects do not affect the sensors function. When looking at sensor technologies it is import to understand the material target before selecting the correct sensor for the applied application such as an Inductive sensor would be selected if we are looking at a ferrous (metal) target at short range. Below are some examples of good and poor reflective materials when Ultrasonic sensors are used.

Good Reflective MaterialsUltrasonicApplication

  • Water
  • Paint
  • Wood
  • Metal
  • Plastic
  • Concrete/Stone
  • Glass
  • Hard Rubber
  • Hard Foam

Challenging Relective Materials

  • Cotton Wool
  • Soft Carpet
  • Soap Foams
  • Powders With Air
  • Soft Foam
  • Soft Rubber

So as you can see materials that are hard or solid have good reflective properties whereas soft materials will absorb the sound wave provided from the sensor making it much more challenging to detect our target. For more information on Ultrasonic sensors click here.

Open- vs. Closed-loop Control

Several previous articles here on SENSORTECH have mentioned closed-loop control (Servo-Hydraulic Showcase, Linear Feedback Sensor Applications: The Three M’s). But exactly what does “closed-loop control” mean? How does it compare to open-loop control? I recently ran across an article in Control Engineering magazine that does an outstanding job of answering those questions.

Click over and have a look at this excellent article.

RFID – Keep it Simple!

traceabilityMost of us drive an automobile and use a PC daily. However, very few of us could accurately describe the intricate details of how each of those work. They help us get to work and help us do our work. There is not a need for us to know and understand the algorithm that allows us to compose and save an excel spread sheet. As well, there is not much use in knowing the coefficient of friction when using snow tires compared to standard tires. While those factors play a major role in the tools we use every day, we do not necessarily need to be an expert or scientist to reap the benefits.

Much like a car or PC, RFID systems enable us to be more efficient and productive. Specifically, RFID systems in manufacturing enable full visibility into the process. RFID technology provides actionable data to an organization. Having access to actionable data allows an organization to make critical business decisions with a great degree of confidence. Essentially, it takes the guess work out of the process.

So, how does it work? Very simply, a reader reads the information that has been written to the memory of a tag. Yes, it is that simple.

Check out this webex sponsored by SME. This is a very basic introduction to RFID and how it is used in manufacturing.

Do’s and Don’ts For Applying Inductive Prox Sensors

Inductive proximity sensor face damage

Example of proximity sensor face damage

In my last post (We Don’t Make Axes Out of Bronze Anymore) we discussed the evolution of technologies which brought up the question, can a prox always replace a limit switch?  Not always.  Note that most proxes cannot directly switch large values of current, for example enough to start a motor, operate a large relay, or power up a high-wattage incandescent light.   Being electronic devices, most standard proxes cannot handle very high temperatures, although specialized hi-temp versions are available.

A prox is designed to be a non-contact device.  That is, it should be installed so that the target does not slam into or rub across the sensing face.  If the application is very rough and the spacing difficult to control, a prox with more sensing range should be selected.  Alternately, the prox could be “bunkered” or flush-mounted inside a heavy, protective bracket.  The target can pound on the bunker continuously, but the sensor remains safely out of harm’s way.

If direct contact with a sensor absolutely cannot be avoided, ruggedized metal-faced sensors are available that are specifically designed to handle impacts on the active surface.

Be sure to consider ambient conditions of the operating environment.  High temperature was mentioned earlier, but other harsh conditions such as disruptive electrical welding fields or high-pressure wash-down can be overcome by selecting proxes specially designed to survive and thrive in these environments.

Operationally, another thing to consider is the target material.  Common mild carbon steel is the ideal target for an inductive prox and will yield the longest sensing ranges with standard proxes.  Other metals such as aluminum, brass, copper, and stainless steel have different material properties that reduce the sensing range of a standard prox.  In these cases be sure to select a Factor 1 type proximity sensor, which can sense all metals at the same range.

Precision Optical Measurement and Detection

In applications that require precise measurement and detection of one or more objects, what type of sensor should one use? If objects that are very small and far apart need to be detected, what type of sensor provides high resolution over its entire sensing range?

The answer: a laser micrometer.

A laser micrometer can identify, compare, or sort objects based on minimal size or height differences. Similar to a standard micrometer caliper, a laser micrometer provides precise measurements.

But how is this done exactly? Let’s find out!

A laser micrometer consists of two opposed sides, a transmitter side and a receiver side. These two sides sit opposite of each other to detect any object that enters in-between them.

On the transmitter side, a laser light source is positioned so that its emitted light enters a lens. The lens then collimates the light from the laser by refraction into a collimated beam of light (see Figure 1). By definition, a collimated light beam is a light beam where each light path in the beam is travelling parallel to one another. This collimated light beam has minimal divergence, even over large distances.


Figure 1

On the other side, the receiver side, a CCD (charge-coupled device) is positioned to collect the light emitted from the transmitter side. CCDs are made up tiny light-sensitive cells. These cells convert the amount of light intensity received into a corresponding electric charge, which can then be measured (see Figure 2).


Figure 2

The combination of these two components, a collimated light beam and a CCD, make up the foundation of a standard laser micrometer. The collimated light beam, which consists of a homogeneous light band, is directed at the CCD, which consists of hundreds of tiny light-sensitive cells. With this configuration, even a slight change in an object (e.g., its diameter, height, position, etc.) causes a change in the object’s corresponding shadow that is projected onto the CCD. This slight change can then be measured.

A few examples of the measurement capabilities for a laser micrometer are listed below, along with a video.


Position Monitoring


Diameter Detection


Gap/Height Measurement


Edge Guide — even with semi-transparent materials

The following video showcases the capabilities of the Balluff Light Array sensor: For more information on this sensor, please click here.


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