Liquid Level Sensing: Detect or Monitor?

Pages upon pages of information could be devoted to exploring the various products and technologies used for liquid level sensing and monitoring.  But we’re not going to do that in this article.  Instead, as a starting point, we’re going to provide a brief overview of the concepts of discrete (or point) level detection and continuous position sensing.

 Discrete (or Point) Level Detection

Example of discrete sensors used to detect tank level

Example of discrete sensors used to detect tank level

In many applications, the level in a tank or vessel doesn’t need to be absolutely known.  Instead, we just need to be able to determine if the level inside the tank is here or there.  Is it nearly full, or is it nearly empty?  When it’s nearly full, STOP the pump that pumps more liquid into the tank.  When it’s nearly empty, START the pump that pumps liquid into the tank.

This is discrete, or point, level detection.  Products and technologies used for point level detection are varied and diverse, but typical technologies include, capacitive, optical, and magnetic sensors.  These sensors could live inside the tank outside the tank.  Each of these technologies has its own strengths and weaknesses, depending on the specific application requirements.  Again, that’s a topic for another day.

In practice, there may be more than just two (empty and full) detection points.  Additional point detection sensors could be used, for example, to detect ¼ full, ½ full, ¾ full, etc.  But at some point, adding more detection points stops making sense.  This is where continuous level sensing comes into play.

Continuous Level Sensing

Example of in-tank continuous level sensor

Example of in-tank continuous level sensor

If more precise information about level in the tank is needed, sensors that provide precise, continuous feedback – from empty to full, and everywhere in between – can be used.  This is continuous level sensing.

In some cases, not only does the level need to be known continuously, but it needs to be known with extremely high precision, as is the case with many dispensing applications.  In these applications, the changing level in the tank corresponds to the amount of liquid pumped out of the tank, which needs to be precisely measured.

Again, various technologies and form factors are employed for continuous level sensing applications.  Commonly-used continuous position sensing technologies include ultrasonic, sonic, and magnetostrictive.  The correct technology is the one that satisfies the application requirements, including form factor, whether it can be inside the tank, and what level of precision is needed.

At the end of the day, every application is different, but there is most likely a sensor that’s up for the task.

5 Tips on Making End-of-Arm Tooling Smarter

Example of a Flexible EOA Tool with 8 sensors connected with an Inductive Coupling System.

Example of a Flexible EOA Tool with 8 sensors connected with an Inductive Coupling System.

Over the years I’ve interviewed many customers regarding End-Of-Arm (EOA) tooling. Most of the improvements revolve around making the EOA tooling smarter. Smarter tools mean more reliability, faster change out and more in-tool error proofing.

#5: Go Analog…in flexible manufacturing environments, discrete information just does not provide an adequate solution. Analog sensors can change set points based on the product currently being manufactured.

#4: Lose the weight…look at the connectors and cables. M8 and M5 connectorized sensors and cables are readily available. Use field installable connectors to help keep cable runs as short as possible. We see too many long cables simply bundled up.

#3: Go Small…use miniature, precision sensors that do not require separate amplifiers. These miniature sensors not only cut down on size but also have increased precision. With these sensors, you’ll know if a part is not completely seated in the gripper.

#2: Monitor those pneumatic cylinders…monitoring air pressure in one way, but as speeds increase and size is reduced, you really need to know cylinder end of travel position. The best technology for EOA tooling is magnetoresistive such as Balluff’s BMF line. Avoid hall-effects and definitely avoid reed switches. Also, consider dual sensor styles such as Balluff’s V-Twin line.

#1: Go with Couplers…with interchangeable tooling, sensors should be connected with a solid-state, inductive coupling system such as Balluff’s Inductive Coupler (BIC). Avoid the use of pin-based connector systems for low power sensors. They create reliability problems over time.

GIZMOS

Plural of Giz-mo.  A noun.  Defined as a gadget, one whose name the speaker does not know.  Customers call us and ask for this or that “gizmo” all the time!  I think we should consider creating a product category simply called “GIZMOS”.

I like to call these things “Enablers” because these devices are very much helping hands that optimize the function of sensors.  A sensor of any brand and manufacturer performs only as well as it’s mounted, matching the fixture to the demands of the application at hand. But how often does this happen in a price-driven world?  They often end up in below-par mounting that fails with regularity, in both pristine environments as well as in hostile environments.  Some examples:

Here’s one example below. These inductive proximity sensors in plastic brackets, showing an exposed coil on one, with corroded mounts on the sensor caused by being beaten to death during parts loading and heat.

gizmo1      gizmo2

With a few “Gizmos” like an application-specific quick change mount, some care in gapping the sensor and guarding the cable/connector system, it could look much different. Check out the examples below.

gizmo4 gizmo5

Photoelectric sensors can suffer the same fate.  In this case, a plastic bodied photoelectric sensor, originally used to replace a fiber optic thru beam pair also suffered abuse. With a little extra beefy mounting, these photoelectric sensors can be expected to last a long time without failure.

gizmo6 gizmo7

There are literally hundreds of these mounting “ENABLERS”, off-the-shelf, cost-effective application specific mounts, guards, actuators and entire systems to help protect your sensor investment.  All categories of products have these “enabling” accessories for Magnetic Field (air cylinder), Inductive Proximity, Capacitive, Ultrasonic, Connectivity, Linear Transducer and Photoelectric product categories.

A 3-Step Plan to Improve Your Design of Pneumatic Systems

I’ve been talking pneumatic systems (valves, cylinders, actuators, etc.) recently with my customers and I’m finding among these engineers some common pains coming out of the system design.  It seems that many people are researching networked valve islands with I/O built-in.  These seem to be a great way to consolidate lots of I/O into one IP address, but there are some new issues cropping up similar to the above photo:

  • When assembling these at a machine builder the routing of cables with piping is more cumbersome  with cables hanging off the valves, larger cable tray installations  and large amounts of piping all running to the same spot.
  • For machine builders, with all of the valves centralized in one place, the pneumatic lines have to be longer.  This causes many issues such as slower responsiveness due to air volume, air inertia, and lower air quality.
  • When trying to perform maintenance at an end-user, it becomes a nightmare to troubleshoot with a cluster of cables and pipes.  The zip-tied and clean runs installed by the machine builder are cut, tangled and re-routed as the machine ages and becomes more difficult to troubleshoot.
  • Also at end users, if the manifold needs to be expanded, updated, retrofitted with new valves or I/O, there are big hurdles to jump when doing this: re-piping the valve due to mounting position shifting or even having to edit and repair code in the PLC to adapt to new bitmaps generated by the new valve manifold configuration.
  • When closing the loop with magnetic field sensors mounted on the cylinders, typically reed switches are used which are prone to failure.  In addition, these switches typically have two sensors & cables per actuator to give extend or retract position, these cables cause larger cable trays and long cable runs back to the centralized manifold and I/O.

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Visit Automation Tradeshows for Free!

I am experiencing the future of tradeshows; a networking & educational conference without the travel, the expense, and the suit!  I can sit at my desk and make contact with future vendors and customers.  The online database GlobalSpec hosts multiple times per year industry specific virtual tradeshow events.  There are presentations and exhibitors.  A place to sit and drink virtual coffee with your peers and of course the token giveaway raffles.

Today I am working the Balluff booth in the Sensors and Switches Virtual show.  It is a collection of companies and attendees from many different industries.  I really enjoy these events because we can contact quickly with potential customers and potential vendors right from the comfort of our conference room and at a much reduced cost. Here you can see our hard working staff chatting with customers.

Check out the Balluff booth at the  Sensors & Switches Virtual Tradeshow, it will be available to visit for 90 days from today.

Upgrade Sensors…Upgrade Automation Performance


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In many cases, the mechanical components of an older machine can basically operate forever.  Critical surfaces can be remachined, and bearings and gears can be replaced again and again to restore lost accuracy and repeatability.

But what about the control system?  Sometimes older machines are retrofitted with a new controller to enhance its productivity and extend its useful life.  Such refits should not stop with the controller alone.  Many of the greatest improvements in machine performance can be obtained by upgrading the entire sensor package as well.  Sensors are at the heart of today’s automation systems.  They provide the critical information and feedback about what the system is doing, and the status and condition of products being handled and produced.

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What is the hysteresis of your magnetic field sensor?

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I received a call the other day from a customer who wanted to use a magnetic field sensor on a cylinder, and evidently was requiring very precise results. He asked, “what is the hysteresis of your sensors? I notice that it is listed in your catalog as a percentage and I need to know the exact value in millimeters.” My response was, “well it depends”,  upon which he was not overly pleased. I then continued to explain my answer which leads me to the contents of this posting.

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Better Alternatives to Pneumatic Cylinder End-of-Stroke Detection

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There are better alternatives to detect pneumatic cylinder end of stroke position than reed switches or proximity switches. By better, I mean they are faster and easier to implement into your control system. In addition, you can realize other benefits such as commonality of spare sensors and lower long-term costs. So what are the better solutions?

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The Pros and Cons of End-of-Stroke Detection with Reed Switches

Pneumatic cylinders are used in many applications as prime movers in machinery, material handling, assembly, robotics, medical, and the list could go on. One of the challenges facing OEM’s integrators and end users is to detect reliably whether the cylinder has been fully extended or retracted before allowing machine movement. Solutions include the use of inductive sensors with some sort of target and internally mounted magnet (by the cylinder manufacturer) on the cylinder piston. In my previous blog, I discussed the two primary magnets, axially and radially magnetized magnets, used by cylinder manufacturers. Now, we will review one of the most commonly used magnetic field sensors to detect extension and retraction of the cylinder…the well-known reed switch.

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