Cable Length for Analog Sensors

A question came in recently concerning the maximum recommended cable length for analog sensors.  Even as digital interfaces gain popularity, sensors with analog interfaces (0-10V, 4-20 mA, etc.) still represent the overwhelming majority of continuous position sensors used in industrial applications.

The question about maximum cable length for analog sensors comes up pretty frequently.  Generally speaking, the issue is that electrical conductors, even good ones, have some resistance to the flow of current (signals).  If the resistance of the conductor (the cable) gets high enough, the sensor’s signal can be degraded to the point where accuracy suffers, or even to the point where it becomes unusable.  Unfortunately, there is no hard and fast answer to the question.  Variables such as wire gauge, whether or not the cable is shielded, where and how the cable is routed, what other types of devices are nearby, and other factors come into play, and need to be considered.  A discussion about all of these variables could fill a book, but we can make some general recommendations:

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E = IR: It’s Not Just a Good Idea, it’s the Law

I recently had a conversation with a customer that resulted in one of those forehead-slapping “duh” moments for me, and I thought it might be worth passing along. Here’s the story:

The customer had an application that required an analog linear feedback sensor that provided an output of 1 volt to 5 volts over the linear stroke range. Now, a 1-5V output is not very common, and the particular sensor he was interested in was only available with either a 0-10V or a 4-20 mA output. What to do? Perhaps the answer should have been obvious to me, but it was the customer who provided the solution this time: “couldn’t I use a 4-20 mA output and 250 ohm resistor to get my 1-5V output?” Why, yes….yes you could (smack…..duh!). And I know it will work, because we have the law on our side. Ohm’s Law, that is: E = IR, or voltage equals current x resistance.

Let’s check it:

4 (mA) x 250 (ohms) = 1 (volt)

20 (mA) x 250 (ohms) = 5 (volts)

So there you have it. Take a very common 4-20 mA output and drop it across a 250 ohm resistor and, lo and behold, you have your less common 1-5V signal. And, if you do this conversion right at the input to the controller, you get the added benefit of increased noise immunity of the 4-20 mA signal.

And, yes, I’m sure I knew of this little trick at one time. Maybe the part of my brain where this information was stored got overwritten by the names of the contestants on The Amazing Race or by the rollout plans for my million dollar consumer product idea: Dehydrated Water (just add water). But let’s keep that just between us, ok?

Intelligent Interfaces and IO-Link Innovation

I recently had the opportunity to attend Hannover Fair in Germany and was blown away by the experience… buildings upon buildings of automation companies doing amazing things and helping us build our products faster, smarter and cheaper.  One shining topic for me at the fair was the continued growth of new products being developed with IO-Link communications in them.

All in all, the growth of IO-Link products is being driven by the need of customers to know more about their facility, their process and their production.  IO-Link devices are intelligent and utilize a master device to communicate their specific information over an industrial network back to the controller.  To learn more about IO-Link, read my previous entry, 5 Things You Need to Know about IO-Link.

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Linear Position Sensor Terminology

Hysteresis, resolution, repeatability, non-linearity, null-point, temperature coefficient, accuracy.  These are but a handful of the many terms associated with linear position sensors.  To the uninitiated, it can be rather daunting.  And, unfortunately, there is a lot of room for ambiguity and confusion.

For example, let’s take a look at the term “accuracy”, as in “how accurate is this this linear position sensor?”  It seems like a fairly straightforward
question, right?  But in reality, it’s not that simple.   Whenever I get asked that question, my response is “what do you mean by accuracy?”  To which, I usually get a response something like “what do you mean what do I mean by accuracy?”  The fact is that the term “accuracy” means different things to different people.   The person asking the question may want to know the absolute straight-line, absolute positional accuracy (non-linearity) of the sensor.  Or, they may be referring to how accurately the sensor can repeat the same indicated value at the same position over subsequent moves (repeatability).  Or, perhaps what they’re really interested in is the smallest amount of position change that the sensor can detect (resolution).  So, as you can see, it’s not a simple question after all.

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Thinking Outside the Cylinder

In a previous entry, I discussed how linear position sensors are used with hydraulic cylinders to provide continuous position feedback.  While this is certainly one of the most common ways linear position sensors are used, there are many applications for linear position sensors that either don’t involve a hydraulic cylinder at all, or that involve a cylinder only indirectly.

Linear position sensors for external use (not installed into a hydraulic cylinder) offer some very tangible benefits when compared to in-cylinder sensors.  Let’s explore a few of those benefits:

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Linear Transducer Installation Considerations


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In my last entry, I talked about using a magnetostrictive linear position sensor in a hydraulic cylinder.  I received a few questions about that application, and I wanted to take this opportunity to answer one of them.

Q.  Why is it necessary to use a non-ferrous spacer to attach the magnet ring to the face of the hydraulic cylinder’s piston? 

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Hydraulic Cylinder Position Feedback

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Today, we’re going back to basics with one of the most common applications for linear position sensors: hydraulic cylinder position feedback.

Magnetostrictive linear position transducers are commonly used in conjunction with hydraulic cylinders to provide continuous, absolute position feedback.  Non-contact magnetostrictive technology assures dependable, trouble-free operation.  The brief video below illustrates how magnetostrictive position sensors are used with hydraulic cylinders.

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Add Value with Smart Linear Position Sensors

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Way back when (in the sensor world, “way back when” = about 10 years), linear position sensors had to do only one thing: provide linear position feedback.  But these days, merely sensing linear position is not always enough.  In order to meet the needs of increasingly sophisticated applications, linear position sensors sometimes need to be able to provide advanced functionality.  Listed below are just a few of the advanced features that some of today’s linear position sensors offer.

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Control, Monitor, Measure: Three Main Applications for Linear Position Sensors

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It occurred to me recently that, while linear position sensors are used in a wide variety of industries and applications, all of these applications fall into three broad categories:  controlling linear motion, monitoring linear motion, and measuring linear motion.

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