Measurement Fundamentals: Position Measurement vs. Distance Measurement

Continuous measurements on industrial machines or the materials that these machines are making, moving, or processing can be categorized into two main types of sensors:  position measurement sensors, and distance measurement sensors.  It’s a somewhat subtle distinction, but one that is important when evaluating the best measurement sensor for a particular application.

Position Measurement: When we speak in terms of position measurement, we’re typically talking about applications where a the sensor is installed onto a machine, and mechanically coupled to the moving part of the machine – or is installed into a hydraulic cylinder that is moving the machine – and is reporting the continuous position of the machine.  In a positioning application, the questions that need to be answered are: “Where is it?  Where is it now?  And now?”.

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Examples of position measurement sensors include magnetostrictive linear position sensors and magnetically encoded linear sensors.  With each of these sensor types, either the sensor itself, or the position marker, is typically attached to the moving part of the machine.

Distance Measurement: Distance measurement sensors, on the other hand, are used in applications that require accurate measurement of a target that is typically no part of the machine.  A good example would be an application where parts or components are moving along a conveyer belt, and the position of those parts needs to be accurately measured.  In this example, it wouldn’t be practical, or even possible, to attach a sensor to the moving part.  So its position needs to be measured from a DISTANCE.  In a distance measuring application, the question being answered is: “How far away is it?”.

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Examples of distance measuring sensors include photoelectric (laser) sensors and inductive distance sensors.  These types of sensors are usually mounted on the machine, or in the immediate vicinity of the machine, and are aimed at a point or a path where the object to be measured is, or will be, located.

In summary, while both position and distance sensors do much the same thing – provide continuous indication of position – the applications for each are generally quite different.  Gaining an understanding of the application and its requirements will help to determine which type of sensor is the best choice for the task.

For more information on position and distance measurement sensors, visit

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