Where Discrete Position Sensing Belongs in the Manufacturing Process

Unlike continuous position sensors which provide near real-time position feedback throughout the stroke of the cylinder, discrete position sensors are equipped with a switching functionality at one or more designated positions along the cylinder’s stroke. Typically, these positions are set to detect fully retracted and extended positions but one can also be used to detect mid-stroke position.

To determine which is right for you requires a review of your application and a determination of how precisely the movement of the cylinder needs to be controlled. Some hydraulic cylinder applications require no position sensing at all. These applications simply use the cylinder to move a load, and position control is either done manually or by some other external switch or stop. Moving up a step, many applications require only that the beginning and end of the cylinder stroke be detected so that the cylinder can be commanded to reverse direction. These applications are ideal for discrete position sensing.

Several types of sensors are used for discrete position detection, but one of the most common is high-pressure inductive proximity sensors, which are installed into the end caps of the cylinder. The sensors detect the piston as it reaches the end of the cylinder stroke in either direction.

These sensors are designed to withstand the full pressure of the hydraulic system. Inductive sensors are extremely reliable because they operate without any form of mechanical contact and are completely unaffected by changes in oil temperature or viscosity.

High-pressure inductive sensors installed in hydraulic cylinder

Discrete position sensors are used in applications such as hydraulic clamps, detection of open/closed position in welding operations, and in hydraulic compactors and balers for compacting materials until end of cylinder stroke is reached, at which point the cylinder retracts.

Additionally, it is quite common for pneumatically-actuated clamps and grippers to use discrete sensors to indicate fully extended and fully retracted positions, and in many cases, in-between positions as well. There are even applications where multiple discrete sensors are used in grippers for gauging and sizing work pieces.

By far, the most common method of providing discrete position in an air cylinder is to use externally-mounted switches that react to a magnet installed around the circumference of the piston. These magnetically-actuated switches can sense the field of a magnet embedded in the cylinder’s piston through the aluminum body of the cylinder.

magnetically actuated
Magnetically actuated sensor installed into cylinder C-slot

There are several different operating principles used in these magnetically-actuated switches, ranging from simple, low-cost reed switches and Hall-effect switches to significantly more reliable sensors that use magnetoresistive technology. One of the big advantages of magnetoresistive sensors is that they will reliably detect both radial and axial magnetic fields, making them ideal replacements for reed or Hall-effect switches.

Check out our previous blog to learn more about continuous position sensors.

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