How Manufacturing Can Easily Invest in STEM Programs

I continuously hear from manufacturers, machine builders and integrators across our industry that they can’t find qualified people for the job openings they have.  Technicians or Engineers, Controls or Mechanical, all positions are in short supply and heavy demand.

“The Boston Consulting Group (BCG)’s “Made in America” research series estimates the shortage at 80,000 to 100,000 highly skilled manufacturing workers.” SHRM

In addition, according to the same study, the average age in 2013 of these workers was 56 years.  In conference presentations, I have seen segments like Steel or Metalworking show average ages up to 62.  And the demand for Science Technology Engineering & Math (STEM) jobs is only growing.

“Over the past 10 years, STEM jobs grew three times faster than non-STEM jobs, and they are projected to continue to grow by 17% through 2018, compared to 9.8% for all other occupations.” SME – Anna Maria Chávez
CEO, Girl Scouts of the USA


“The United States has one of the lowest shares of college degrees awarded in science and technology.” McKinsey

This collection of data screams to me that we MUST work on encouraging our youth with an interest in manufacturing and automation.  Manufacturers have the opportunity to drive this interest even with small investments that can have a large impact.

Especially important is that we invest in programs for the K-12 level according to McKinsey as relatively few incoming freshmen choose these STEM subjects and less than half complete their degrees.

I am personally passionate about encouraging people of all ages into STEM careers and I love sharing my passion for automation.  We, at Balluff, are investing in technical labs, capstone projects and even middle school after school programs.

If you are interested in how you can get more involved in promoting STEM careers in your community, please reach out to me.

@WillAutomate on Twitter

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“Team” Spells Success In Traceability

If you’ve ever considered a traceability project, like asset tracking for instance, you’ve probably also done some homework into the different technological ways to implement it, from barcoding to using RFID (radio frequency identification). And possibly, while doing that research, you may have seen some presentations or read some articles or whitepapers that have talked about the “team” of stakeholders required to implement these projects, especially if involving the scale required for a facility, or even multiple facilities. Well if you’re a manager reading this and involved with such an endeavor, I’m writing to tell you, take this stakeholder team thing seriously.

In many respects, there are rational fears in getting a stakeholder team together in the early stages of these projects, like the conceptualization stage for example. These fears include: Blowing the project out of proportion; Creating mission creep; Even derailing the project with the others self-interests. Again, all can be valid and even come true to a certain extent, but the reality is that most, if not all of the time, these same stakeholders will also identify the potential opportunities and pitfalls that will either help build the REAL ROI case, and/or help prevent the unseen wall that will prevent success.

These stakeholders can range from operational management (warehouse to manufacturing, depending on the target), IT, financial, quality, and engineering, just to get the ball rolling. You must always be careful of allowing the project to slip into “decision by committee”, so hold the reins and have the project lead firm in hand. But by bringing their input, you stand to satisfy not only your goal, but likely the shared goals they also have, validating and strengthening the real ROI that will likely exist if traceability is the requirement. You will also likely find that along the way you will bring improvements and efficiencies that will benefit the broader organization as a whole.

Once you’ve established the goal and the real ROI, reinforced by the stakeholder’s inputs, that is the time to bring in the technology pieces to see what best will solve that goal. This is many times were the first mistake can be made. The technology suppliers are brought in too soon and the project becomes technology weighted and a direction assumed before a true understanding of the benefits and goals of the organization are understood. Considering a project manager before bringing in the technology piece is also a great way to be ready when this time comes. When you’re ready for this stage, this will typically involve bringing in the vendors, integrators and so forth. And guess what, I’m certain you’ll find this part so much easier and faster to deal with, and with greater clarity. If you have that clear picture from your team when you bring in your solution providers, you will find the choices and their costs more realistic, and have a better picture of the feasibility of what your organization can implement and support.

Not to kill the thought with a sports analogy, but a team united and pulling for the same goal in the same direction will always win the game, versus each player looking out for just their own goals. So get your team together and enjoy the sweet taste of ROI success all around.

For more information on Traceability visit

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Requirements for Sanitary Fill Level Sensors

In a previous entry here on the SensorTech blog, we discussed the concept of liquid level sensing, and the difference between discrete liquid level detection and continuous liquid level monitoring.  In this entry, we are going to talk about the requirements for liquid level sensors that are used to measure or monitor liquid products that will ultimately be consumed by humans.

In these applications, it is necessary and critical that sanitary standards be met and maintained.  Sensor designed for sanitary applications are usually designed from the ground up to meet these requirements.

Basically, there are two key criteria that come into play when considering the suitability of a sensor to be used in a sanitary environment:

  • Cleanability – Sanitary filling systems typically need to be regularly cleaned and/or sterilized to prevent the growth of potentially harmful bacteria. It is desirable in most cases that the cleaning/sterilization process be done as quickly and as easily as possible, without having to remove components (including sensors) from the system.  For this reason, many sanitary fill sensors are designed to withstand “cleaning-in-place” (CIP).  Factors such as water-tightness, and ability to withstand elevated cleaning solution temperatures come into play for CIP suitability.
  • Mechanical Sensor Design – Sensors for sanitary fill applications are usually designed such that there are no mechanical features that would allow liquid or debris to collect. Crevices, grooves, seams, etc. can all act as collection points for liquid, and can ultimately lead to contamination.  For this reason, sanitary sensors are designed without such features.  The physical make-up of the sensor surface is also important.  Exterior surfaces need to be very smooth and non-reactive (e.g. high-grade stainless steel).  Such materials also contribute to cleanability.

Consistent standards for sanitary equipment, products, and processes are defined and maintained by 3-A SSI, a not-for-profit entity that provides consistent, controlled, and documented standards and certifications for manufacturers and users of sanitary equipment, particularly in the food, beverage, and pharmaceutical industries.  Equipment that meets these sanitary standards will usually display the 3-A symbol. For more information on this solution visit the Balluff website.

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Miniature Capacitive Sensors for Small Part Detection

As discussed in a previous blog post, miniature sensors are an ongoing trend in the market as manufacturing and equipment requirements continue to demand smaller sensor size due to either space limitations and/or weight considerations. However, size and weight aren’t the only factors. The need for more precise sensing — higher accuracy, repeatability, and smaller part detection — is another demanding requirement and, often times, the actual main focus point.

This post will look specifically at capacitive sensors and how smaller capacitive sensors can lead to better detection of smaller parts.


Principle of a capacitive sensor


Parallel-plate capacitor equation

Capacitive sensors provide non-contact detection of all types of objects, ranging from insulators to conductors and even liquids. A capacitive sensor uses the principle of capacitance to detect objects. The equation for capacitance takes into account the surface area (A) of either electrode, the distance (d) between the electrodes, and the dielectric constant (εr) of the material between the electrodes. In simple terms: a capacitive sensor detects the change in capacitance when an object enters its electrical field. Internal circuitry determines if the gain in capacitance is above the set threshold. Once the threshold is met the sensor’s output is switched.


Actuation of a capacitive sensor

When looking at small part detection, the size of the capacitive sensor’s active sensing surface plays a significant part. Now there isn’t a defined formula for calculating smallest detectable object for a capacitive sensor because of the numerous variables that need to be considered (as seen in the equation above). However, the general rule for optimal sensing is that the target size should be at least equal to the size of the sensor’s active surface. The reason behind this is if the target size is smaller than the sensor’s active surface, the electric field would travel around the target and cause unreliable readings.

Taking the general rule into consideration and comparing a miniature 4mm diameter capacitive sensor to a standard 18mm diameter capacitive sensor, it’s simple to determine that the 4mm diameter capacitive sensor can reliably detect a much smaller target (4mm) than the 18mm diameter capacitive sensor (18mm).

So when looking at small part detection, the smaller the sensor’s active sensing surface is, the better its ability for small part detection. Therefore, if an application requires detection of a small part, it’s best to start with miniature capacitive sensor.

For more information on miniature capacitive sensors click here.

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Detecting Small Bubbles? Consider These Factors First

BubbleDetectionBubble or air-in-line detection is a common lab automation application. In these types of applications it’s important to know whether or not liquid is flowing through a line to ensure safe and proper function in liquid-handling processes.  As these processes utilize smaller and smaller volumes of liquid — which provides cost and time saving benefits — it becomes more and more difficult to detect the potential air pockets forming inside the line. The most common approach in detecting these minute air pockets is a through-beam, photoelectric bubble sensor.

Photoelectric bubble sensors provide non-invasive detection of fluids and air pockets residing inside a tube. They have fixed opening dimensions for standard tube sizes allowing the selected tube to sit in perfect position between the sensor’s optical components. When the sensor’s light beam is blocked by fluid (or an air pocket) inside the tube, the received signal varies and external electronics determine if the signal variation is above or below the set threshold. Once the threshold is met the sensor’s output is switched.

Detecting bubbles sounds quite straightforward and simple, but in reality the application can be somewhat complicated. Several factors should be considered for reliable detection. Listed below are a few factors to consider:

  1. Tube diameters (inner and outer)
  2. Tube transparency
  3. Liquid type(s)
  4. Liquid transparency

Tube Diameters

Tube Sensor DrawingBecause a tube acts as a lens for light to travel it’s important to factor in the tube diameters. If there is a large difference between the outer and inner diameters of a particular tube, the outcome is a relatively large tube wall. A large tube wall will allow light rays to travel from the emitter through the wall straight to the detector without passing through the inner diameter of the tube, where the liquid or bubble is present. This causes unreliable detection. By accounting for both the inner and outer tube diameters a proper determination can be made in selecting what type of sensor to use to ensure that light only passes through the inner diameter of the tube and not through the wall.

Tube Transparency

Since photoelectric tube sensors operate on the principle of light detection, light must make it through one end of the tube and out the other end. Therefore, the transparency of the tube is critical. If the tube is opaque a photoelectric sensor solution is unlikely; however, in some cases it’s possible for a photoelectric tube sensor to detect through an opaque tube.

Liquid Type(s) and Transparency

The liquid type(s) and transparency are critical when determining which photoelectric tube sensor to use. If the liquid type is non-aqueous, without factoring in its transparency, it’s best to use the principle of light refraction through the liquid. If the liquid type is aqueous and is completely transparent or semitransparent, it’s best to use the principle of light absorption through the liquid. The following table will help determine what type of sensor to use with respect to the liquid type present inside the tube.


Since the type of applications that require precise bubble detection range in specifications from the use of hundreds of different liquids to specialized tube dimensions, this post only touches the surface of the photoelectric sensors for bubble detection.  For more information on tube sensors, please visit the Balluff website.

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Which cable jacket is best for your application?

There are many different types of cable jackets and each jacket works well in a specific application.  The three main sensor cable jackets are PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride), PUR (polyurethane) and TPE (thermoplastic elastomer). Each jacket type has different benefits like washdown, abrasion resistant or high flexing applications.  Finding the correct jacket type for your application can extend the life of the cable.PVC

PVC is a general purpose cable and is widely available.  It is a common cable, and typically has the best price point.  PVC has a high moisture resistance, which makes it a good choice for wash-down applications.

PURPUR is found mostly in Asia and Europe.  This cable jacket type has good resistance against abrasion, oil and ozone.  PUR is known for being Halogen free, not containing: chlorine, iodine, fluorine, bromine or astatine.  This jacket type does have limited temperature range compared to the other jacket types, -40…80⁰C.

TPETPE is flexible, recyclable and has excellent cold temperature characteristics, -50…125⁰C.  This cable is resistant against aging in the sunlight, UV and ozone.  TPE has a high-flex rating, typically 10 million.

The table below details the resistance to different conditions. Note that these relative ratings are based on average performance. Special selective compounding of the jacket can improve performance.


Choosing the right jacket type can help reduce failures in the field, reducing downtime and costs.  Please visit to see Balluff’s offering of sensor cables in PVC, PUR and TPE.

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A Simple Way to Improve Speed and Efficiency

We are all efficiency-hungry. We want everything from service in restaurants to production on our plant done efficiently. Sometimes we use the term “speed” interchangeably with efficiency. Is that really a big deal? Of course it is.  How many times have you placed an order at the drive-through window of a fast-food chain and gotten wrong items or incomplete orders? Why do they make mistakes? Because, they are measured on customer response time (speed) and not on accuracy of the delivery (efficiency) — again speed replaced efficiency.

So is the maintenance team at your production plant efficient or speedy?  In my opinion, once you have the right maintenance person for the problem at hand they would be both efficient and speedy. The point I want to make is that identifying what type of maintenance service your system needs is the important part in making your maintenance team efficient in responding. Another way would be hiring all-rounder maintenance person who can handle electrical, mechanical and all other issues that your system can throw at him/her. How many of those all-rounders you can find and keep?

Today, in most plants we see three-segment or five-segment stack lights on almost all sorts of equipment that tells you the status of the work-cell: Green = everything good; Red = Need maintenance now!!! But, does it tell you about type of maintenance? So, what do we do? We send our maintenance tech out to the system; he looks up error codes on the small 8×10 HMI and figures out that the system needs an electrical tech to handle the situation. Wouldn’t it be nice, if that stack-light was a little smarter to tell you that “Hey, this system needs {electrical, pneumatic or mechanical} maintenance” instead of just flashing a red light? If it was that intelligent it would probably also tell you that this work-cell is running out of raw materials, or how the system is performing to the production quota etc.

SmartLightWell, I have great news: since the introduction of our one of a kind SmartLights our customers shared so many novel uses of this intelligent LED tower light that it is hard to capture all of them in one blog. I would like to share some quick examples though. As this SmartLight has three programmable modes of operations; stack-light mode, run-light mode and level mode, there are several possibilities of showing different information about the system using the single SmartLight. In one application, when the system needs operator/maintenance intervention, the controller (PLC or computer) switches the SmartLight in run-light mode and utilizes different combinations of foreground and background colors to indicate what type of maintenance and what severity of maintenance is needed. In another application, our customer utilizes the level mode of operation to show how different stations are performing so that plant supervisor and pin-point the bottleneck of the process and provide needed support to ensure efficient operations in the plant. Furthermore, lots of these applications were done as an after-thought to the existing systems in place.

SmartLight is one of the ways to improve your efficiency and speed. If you have unique SmartLight application to share feel free to comment on this blog.

Learn more about the SmartLight in our video library or on our website at

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High Pressure Inductive Sensors with Analog Feedback

In my previous blog post we covered the Anatomy of a High Pressure Proximity Sensor. That post covered the different mechanical housing designs and special properties that go into high pressure sensor products with discrete outputs. That is great information to know when specifying the correct sensor for a particular application. In today’s competitive market and constant goals to improve processes, sensor’s that offer continuous feedback are required.

Hydraulic systems regulate speed of an actuator by regulating flow rate. The flow rate determines the speed of the cylinder spud that actuates inside the system. For example, an analog sensor can provide measurement to the controls with indication of slowing down or speeding up the actuator based on the analog feedback from the sensor in regard to position of the tapered section of the actuator. So, if the internal target gets larger with more position movement (stroke) the distant measurement changes and indicates that the end of stroke is near causing the controller to initiate a soft stop. This provides better control of the system offering a more efficient reliable process.

500barAnalog Inductive sensors provide an absolute voltage or current signal change proportional to the distance of a ferrous target. In high pressure applications that require more position feedback, an analog distance sensor can offer a solution as they also offer high – strength stainless steel housings with special sealing designs that allow pressure up to 500 bar and 85°C temperature ratings making them an ideal solution for valve speed control and soft starts with a non – contact design.

More information on high pressure analog inductive sensors is available on the Balluff website at

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What’s best for integrating Poka-yoke or Mistake Proofing sensors?

Teams considering poka-yoke or mistake proofing applications typically contact us with a problem in hand.  “Can you help us detect this problem?”

We spend a lot of time:

  • talking about the product and the mistakes being made
  • identifying the error and how to contain it
  • and attempting to select the best sensing technology to solve the application.

However this can sometimes be the easy part of the project.  Many times a great sensor solution is identified but the proper controls inputs are not available or the control architecture doesn’t support analog inputs or network connections.  The amount of time and dollar investments to integrate the sensor solution dramatically increases and sometimes the best poka-yoke solutions go un-implemented!”

“Sometimes the best poka-yoke solutions go un-implemented!”

Many of our customers are finding that the best controls architecture for their continuous improvement processes involves the use of IO-Link integrated with their existing architectures.  It can be very quickly integrated into the existing controls and has a wide variety of technologies available.  Both of these factors make it the best for integrating Poka-yoke or Mistake Proofing due to the great flexibility and easy integration.

Download this whitepaper and read about how a continuous improvement technician installed and integrated an error-proofing sensor in 20 minutes!

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Inductive Coupling: Simple Concept for Complex Automation – Part 2

Image provided by Yaskawa America, Inc., Motoman Robotics Division

Image provided by Yaskawa America, Inc., Motoman Robotics Division

In the new era of flexible or customized manufacturing, where manufacturers are producing multiple products on the same production line or performing multiple operations in the same space, robotics is becoming cornerstone of automation. Industry innovators are applying a robot’s agility and multipurpose form to solving some real life challenges and stretching horizons of possibilities to all new levels. These next generation applications bring with them a new complex age of automation that was nearly unthinkable a decade ago.  When we think about flexible manufacturing what comes to mind first are the challenges of handling product changeovers. With robots that would mean changing out the end-effectors so the robot is ready quickly for next operation.

Figure 1: Tool changer example with pin couplers

Figure 1: Tool changer example with pin couplers

With the current trends in automation, demand for robotic tool changers (quick change for end-effectors) is growing at a fast pace. This is not only limited to automotive or heavy industries but also in packaging, bakery automation, food and pharma, and importantly in life sciences. End effectors are where these innovators primarily focus on to create value for their customers by handling products in most application suitable way.  The smarts of the end effectors, sensors and actuators, need power and the ability to communicate with the controller. Traditionally, this is achieved with pin-based coupling, where the robot approaches the tool changing station, engages the tool and very accurately mates the two ends of the pin couplers to power up the tool’s smarts.

The pin based coupling is effective and widely used today but it has few of its own issues: First, the pins of the tool when not in use are open and exposed to the environment- accumulation of dust, water or oil- causes nuisances in the connection process. Second, these are mechanical contacts and over time they wear out, bend, or break and cause un-intended downtime in the application.

Inductive coupling addresses all these issues and adds further value to automation. As explained in my previous blog. Both sides of the inductive coupler (Base and Remote) are fully encapsulated, typically with IP67 protection class, so that these couplers have no environmental issues to worry about. Since both sides are magnetically coupled, they are immune to vibrations. And, yes, since there is no-contact between the base and the remote side, there are no worries about bending or breaking of the pins.

Inductive coupling with IO-Link technology adds more benefits besides replacing the pin coupling. IO-Link enabled inductive couplers allow transferring up to 32 bytes of data in addition to power for actuation or sensors. When you connect IO-Link enabled I/O hubs or valve connectors to the remote side, (as shown in the picture below) you can also store identification data on the IO-Link hub or valve. When the connection is establish the controller can request the identification data from the tool to ensure that robot or system is utilizing the correct tool for the upcoming process. You might say, “wait a minute– this identification is also possible with pin-based coupling, so what is so great about inductive coupling?” Great question! With pin based coupling you first need to engage the tool to mate the two ends of the pin couplers and then request the identification. Up to 4-5 seconds are wasted before you realize it is a wrong tool. With inductive coupling, just the base need to be brought closer to the remote so that you could quickly couple and identify the tool before engaging the tool– saving you precious seconds. Coupling usually takes less than a second and most importantly the base and remote do not need to be well aligned to couple misalignment up to 15-20 degrees of angular offset or 2-4mm of axial offset still provides functionality.


So, you may ask, what are the limitations with Inductive coupling? The most important factor is how much energy your tool’s smarts require. Generally speaking 24W-48W is probably the most commonly available inductive couplers. If your tool requires any more than that then pin based coupling is the way to go. Another deciding factor is – metal dust in the environment. In the presence of metal dust on the surface of the couplers may cause interruptions in the communication as the basis of the communication is magnetic induction.

I hope this blog helps you decide the right coupler for your next application. In the next blog of this series we will review how inductive coupling can simplify automation along the assembly lines.

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