Converting Analog Signals to Digital for Improved Performance

We live in an analog world, where we experience temperatures, pressures, sounds, colors, etc., in seemingly infinite values. There are infinite temperature values between 70-71 degrees, for example, and an infinite number of pressure values between 50-51 psi.

Sensors today continue to use analog circuitry to measure a natural process, but more often, the electrical analog signal is then converted to a digital (binary) signal.

How a signal is converted from analog to digital?

A variety of mechanical and electrical transducer technologies, such as Bourdon tube, piezoresistive, manometers, strain gages, and capacitive can be found in a typical pressure sensor. Any one of these can be used to sense pressure and convert the physical pressure into an analog electrical signal. The analog output continuously varies as the pressure rises and lowers. For many sensors of the past, the story ends here. The sensor works well if certain precautions are met, but enhanced features are limited. This sensor would be comprised of electrical components, such as diodes, capacitors, op-amps, and resistors, with typical signal outputs of 0-5VDC, 0-10VDC, +/- 10V, 4-20mA, 0-20mA, etc.

Analog output sensors provide an infinitely varying signal and converting it to digital cannot improve the accuracy of the measured value. Nor will it increase the amount of information we receive from the natural world. So why do we do it?

Why convert to digital signals?

There are several good reasons for converting analog to digital signals. Analog uses more power than digital and it’s more difficult to encrypt, decode, or synchronize. Analog outputs also have a slow rate of transmission. But typically, the biggest reasons are that analog signals weaken and pick up electrical noise as they traverse, and they’re difficult to process and store.

Noises and transmission rates

Electrical energy from motors, contactors, and other electrical devices can become induced into the sensor’s analog electronics, creating noise on the signal. Analog amplifiers can increase the signal strength to extend transmission distances, but it also amplifies the induced noise. The transmission of digital signals, on the other hand, is faster and has negligible distortion. And although a digital signal may need an amplifier for long lengths, too, digital regeneration can more easily correct any 0/1 errors and amplify the signal without amplifying any noise.

Converting a continuously variable signal into 1s and 0s

An analog-to-digital converter (ADC) is an integrated circuit that performs the conversion. While this process includes many important steps, and there are several popular techniques, each has three main processes: sampling, quantizing, and encoding.

Sampling is a process used to select a subset of values from a larger set. In our case, we are starting with an infinite set of values from the analog signal and want to capture a snapshot of the signal at certain time intervals. With a sampling rate of 500Hz, the ADC will grab and hold a value from the analog signal 500 times per second.

Once the signal is sampled, it is quantized. This involves mapping the sample from a set of infinite signal values down to a finite number of values. If there were 100 available increments for quantizing a 0-5vdc signal, for example, the infinite output would now be reduced to 100 available signal level choices with 0 volts mapping as 0, 2.5 volts mapping as 50, and 5 volts as 99.

Lastly, the quantized signal level is encoded to binary form, where it can benefit from the processing, storage, and transmission advantages that come with a digital signal. A quantized level of 50, encoding with an 8-bit processor, would be 00011001, equating to a 2.5vdc signal.

In actual practice, we do not use 100 increments to quantize. The ADC, which is based on the number of bits within the processor within the ADC chip, determines the amount of quantizing increments or levels. Eight bits provide 256 increments. Twelve bits provide 4096 increments or steps, as it is also referred.

Is 12 bits worth of increments (4096 steps) enough resolution?

5VDC /4096 steps = .00122V/step or 1.22mV/step

In most applications, a small step of 1.22mV is acceptable. The original analog signal is now sampled at a specific time, and an increment closest to the value is chosen as the signal level. The quantizing process in this case will round the infinite analog value that was sampled to the nearest multiple of 1.22mV.

The output signal is now a square wave, rather than the original sinusoidal. The peak of each square wave is always the same amplitude, with the peak of the wave representing a “1” and the trough or zero amplitude being a “0.”

The sensor output, now digitized, is capable of further processing, offering enhanced product features such as faster transmission rates, negligible distortion, and the ability to communicate to advanced systems such as IO-Link.

A digital to analog converter (DAC) can convert the signal back to analog, but complete restoration is no longer possible due to the samples taken only at specific times, and the quantizing step rounding off to the nearest increment.

So, the next time you see a spec sheet that says “12-bit resolution,” rest assured you are working with a sensor that has some enhanced capabilities.

Add Safety and Accessibility With Remote Amplifiers

Why did the sensor cross the road?

To work remotely, of course.

Even sensors are working remotely these days, and some have good reason. Many applications dictate that the sensing element be placed remotely from its associated electronics. Let’s looks at a few common examples of this.

This may be for safety’s sake, such as in oil and gas applications where housing the bulk of the electronics away from a hazardous area reduces the likelihood of an electrical discharge, or where there are environmental concerns, such as temperature or vibration. By placing the majority of the electronics safely away, only the minimal number of components are subjected to the extremes.

Another good reason for remote placement is accessibility. In some cases, for example, the sensor must be mounted in a difficult to reach place, and having remote electronics installed in a more accessible location allows for easier access for the needed periodic re-teaching, adjusting, etc.

Separate electronics are also used when the sensing element needs to be designed into a very tight space. These very small sensor elements are likely to be customized to fit into a device directly, often leaving no room for the remainder of the electronics.

Remote placement is typically used out of necessity, but it doesn’t have to limit sensor capability or performance.

A typical amplifier with jog button, selector switch, and display.
Typical amplifier with jog button, selector switch, and display

Separately housed electronics, known as amplifiers, can do more than just house the electronics that support the sensing elements; they also provide a way to configure the sensors through buttons and displays. The amplifier delivers the smart features that larger sensors possess, without increasing the sensor size.

Let’s take a look at an amplifier designed to work with the micromote photoelectric sensors.

Micromote photoelectric sensor with 2mm diameter.
Micromote photoelectric sensor with 2mm diameter

Micromotes are extremely small photoelectric sensors that direct a very tight beam of collimated light at a target. The light emission is specifically engineered for the application, either attenuating or refracting as it interacts with the object to be detected. Many of these applications involve detecting very small bubbles in a stream of fluid, micro-bubbles that are smaller than the human eye can detect.  Others may be used to detect the edge of a microscope slide or count very small drops of liquid.  They are precision engineered to detect small objects in small spaces.

The amplifier will receive a power source, and in return it will provide power to the sensing element. But beyond the supporting electronics, what else might a good amp do?

    • Provide a choice of output types (PNP/NPN/Analog/NO/NC)
    • Supply an adequate frequency response for the fast counting of objects
    • Use LED indicators to help troubleshoot connections and warn of unstable signals
    • Provide on/off signal delays (pulse stretching) for those super fast applications
    • Allow the signal hysteresis to be adjusted to suit the application
    • Provide a way to lock the set parameters from inadvertent changes
    • Offer an alarm output if the application is out of specified limits
    • Include a display to navigate through the menus and to display signal strength when operating
    • Teach the application through the use of selector switches
    • Deliver auto synchronization

So, the next time you have a demanding application that requires a sensor to work remotely, consider a premium amplifier — one that not only supports the sensing element, but provides the smart features that today’s best sensors offer. You just might find that working remotely has many advantages, including a more integrated final product, which is more accessible to tune, and with additional features.

Robust Cylinder Feedback Adds Safety to Mobile Equipment Applications

Adding position feedback to a hydraulic cylinder provides several benefits which include increasing the efficiency of a process, automating a function, and adding safety to a machine. Most manufacturers of cylinder sensing products offer both discrete and proportional outputs to achieve the cylinder feedback required of the application. Of the proportional types, there’s been a few technologies utilized through the years which include resistive potentiometers, glass scales, linear Hall effect, optical readers, linear variable displacement transducers (LVDT’s), and magnetostrictive transducers. Of these many technologies, magnetostriction continues to be the technology of choice for many absolute position feedback applications due to its non-contact sensing, repeat accuracies, linearities within a few micrometers, and robust mechanical assemblies.

The phenomenon of magnetostriction was first discovered by James Joule in 1842. Joule found that a ferromagnetic material, such as an iron rod, would change dimensions slightly when subjected to a magnetic field. Today’s magnetostrictive transducers use special ferromagnetic alloys and utilize Joule’s effect as a position marker. Additional electronics, including time-of-flight circuitry, are then used to define the position and/or velocity of the marker. While the technology of the magnetostrictive transducer is sophisticated today, the general principal remains the same and is well proven.

Magnetostrictive transducers are widely used in steel mills, sawmills, tire manufacturers and many other industrial processes. They are also widely used in mobile equipment in industries such as construction, agriculture, and rail maintenance of way vehicles.

One strong application for cylinder feedback in mobile equipment is for operator safety. Large mobile elevated work platforms (MEWPs, aka boom lifts, man lifts, cherry pickers, etc.) do not utilize outriggers to stabilize the machine due to the machine’s ability to drive while the basket (and operator) are at height. These machines are also likely to be rented, leaving the skill of the operator in question. A quality cylinder transducer provides precise position feedback to the electronic control module which determines if the operator is approaching an unsafe working condition. One such scenario is when the boom is at 45 degrees and telescoping further out from the side of the machine. In this case, the joystick controls will limit the operator inputs to keep the machine from extending any further out, keeping the machine within a predetermined working “envelope.” Another popular application would be as a memory function. A good magnetostrictive transducer will allow the operator to “teach” a specific position. The operator can return to the programmed position automatically. Memory functions are useful for repeat actions such as returning a bucket to a specific height. If trucks to be filled are all the same height, the memory function can save time and reduce mishaps, allowing the operator to concentrate on other functions such as turning and driving. In the rail industry, maintenance of way machines uses magnetostrictive transducers to determine the depth of hydraulic tines that are used to compact ballast, or to raise the track to a specific height.

No matter what the application, when reliable feedback of a cylinder is needed, magnetostrictive transducers provide reassuring feedback on mobile machines, even in harsh conditions.

But not all magnetostrictive transducers are found within a cylinder housing. Some manufacturers offer both internal and external products. The arguments for an internal approach center around added protection for the transducer from rocks, dirt, heat, etc., while advocates for an external approach speak of less downtime in the event of a transducer mishap, and the reduced costs and delivery times of using a standard cylinder. A reputable manufacturer with technical experts can help guide your choice.

Whether internal or external, industrial or mobile, the phenomenon of magnetostriction will continue to be the technology chosen for reliable, accurate detection of hydraulic cylinders.

Pressure-Rated Inductive Sensors Add Security in Mobile Equipment

Manufacturers of mobile equipment have long understood the benefits of replacing mechanical switches with the non-contacting technology of inductive sensors.  Inductive sensors provide wear-free position feedback in a sealed housing suitable for demanding environments.  But some applications may require a different approach if potential mounting issues or sensing ranges are a concern.  For instance, as the mobile machine ages and bushings wear due to typical daily operations, the sensing air gap between the linkage to be sensed and the sensor face may increase beyond the sensor’s optimum working range.   If this scenario is possible, periodic maintenance will be required to adjust the sensor mounting to compensate for the increasing wear.  Another consideration is the mounting bracket itself, and the likelihood of misalignment due to physical contact.

Many off road applications requiring sensor feedback involve hydraulic cylinders.  If these cases, a pressure-rated inductive sensor installed inside a cylinder or valve may be the better design choice.  Pressure-rated inductive sensors are offered with a variety of discrete outputs with numerous housing styles and connections.  Utilizing non-contact switching, stainless steel housings, and sealed to pressures up to 500 Bar, the sensors are designed to provide reliable feedback under the harsh conditions of off highway applications.

Mounting a pressure-rated inductive sensor into a cylinder or valve is straightforward, and very similar to the preparation of a hydraulic port:

      1. the sensor is threaded into the cylinder wall
      2. the sensing air gap is set
      3. the provided nut locks down the sensor
      4. a cable or connector is attached.

Day-to-day wear of the machine no longer affects the sensing gap and the sensor benefits from the additional protection of being installed into the cylinder, avoiding mounting mishaps and is better protected from external damage.

An outrigger application is a good example of the added benefits of using a pressure-rated inductive sensor.  Outriggers are used in cranes, firetrucks, aerial devices, and other mobile machines to provide lateral stability.  Mechanical switches and standard inductive sensors are used to denote when the outrigger is fully raised, lowered, etc.  A standard external sensor will do a good job as long as the mounting is intact and the sensing gap is within the proper range.  But a pressure-rated inductive sensor mounted internally into the hydraulic cylinder takes the worry out of those potential failure scenarios.

Applications with locking cylinders should also be considered.  Many locking cylinder applications are associated with a safety feature, where feedback that the cylinder is locked is critical.  An example would be the rear hatch of a refuse truck.  Occasionally, a worker may need to get inside the rear of a refuse truck.  With the rear hatch raised hydraulically, there’s a possibility that the rear hatch closes with gravity.  Positive feedback that the cylinder is locked is reassuring.

Therefore to reduce downtime caused by wear, to eliminate the misalignment of a mounting bracket, or to ensure your locking cylinder is absolutely locked, consider going “internal” to increase the quality and security of your application.

Mobile Equipment Manufacturers: Is It Time to Make the Switch to Inductive Position Sensors?

Manufacturers of mobile equipment are tasked with the never-ending pursuit of making their machines more productive while adhering to the latest safety regulations, and all at less cost. To help achieve these goals, machines today use electronic control modules to process inputs and provide outputs that ultimately control the machine functions. Yet with all the changes in recent years, one component left over from that earlier era remains in regular use — the mechanical switch.  Switches offered a variety of levers, rollers, and wands for actuation, and many were sealed for an IP67 rating for outdoor use, but they came with an array of problems, including damaged levers, contact corrosion, arcing concerns, dirt or grain dust ingress, and other environmental hazards. Still, overall they were an acceptable and inexpensive way to receive position feedback for on/off functions.

Today, mechanical switches can still be found on machines used for boom presence, turret location, and other discrete functions. But are they the right product for today’s machines?

The original design parameters may have required the switch to drive the load directly, and therefore a rating of 10A@240V might be a good design choice for the relay/diode logic circuits of the past. But a newly designed machine may be switching mere milliamps through the switch into the control module. Does the legacy switch have the proper contact plating material for the load today? Switches use rare metals such as rhodium, palladium, platinum, gold, and silver in attempts to keep the contact resistance low and to protect those contacts from corrosion. Consequently, as China pursues Nonroad Stage IV standards, these metals, some also used in catalytic converters, have sharply increased in price, leading to substantial cost increases to switch manufacturers and ultimately switch users.

A better approach to position feedback for today’s mobile machines is the inductive position sensor. Inductive sensors offer a sealed, non-contact alternative to mechanical switches. Sensing ferrous and non-ferrous metals without physical contact, they eliminate many of the field problems of the past, and non-metallic substances such as water, dirt, and grain dust, do not affect the operation. These qualities make the sensor very suitable for the harsh conditions found in agricultural and construction environments.

Inductive proximity sensors come in a variety of form factors:

Threaded cylindrical – With zinc-plated brass or stainless-steel housings, the threaded barrel styles are popular for their ease of mounting and gap adjustment.  

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Low profile rectangular – These “flatpack” style sensors are great under seats for operator presence.

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Block designs – The compact, cubed package is ideal for larger sensing ranges.

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Large cylindrical – These large “pancake” style sensors are great for detecting suspension movements and other applications requiring extreme ranges.

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Inductive position sensors are more than just a discrete product used for detecting linkage, operator presence, or turret stops; They can also perform the duties of a speed sensor by counting teeth (or holes) to determine the RPM of a rotating shaft. Other models offer analog outputs to provide a continuous feedback signal based on the linear location of a metal linkage or lever. Safety rated outputs, high temperatures, and hazardous area options are some of the many product variants available with this electromagnetic technology.
So, perhaps it’s time to review that legacy switch and consider an inductive sensor?
To learn how an inductive position sensor performs its magic, please take a look at an earlier blog:

Basic Operating Principle of an Inductive Proximity Sensor