Inductive Coupling: A Simple Solution for Replacing Slip Rings

Figure 1: Inductive coupling for power and data exchange

In the industrial automation space, inductive sensors have grown very popular , most commonly used for detecting the proximity of metal objects such as food cans, or machine parts. Inductive coupling, also known as non-contact connectors, uses magnetic induction to transfer power and data over an air gap.

Figure 2: Slip ring example

While inductive couplers have many uses, one of the most beneficial is for replacing a traditional slip-ring mechanism. Slip-rings, also known as rotary connectors, are typically used in areas of a machine where one part rotates, and another part of the machine remains stationary, such as a turn table where stations on the indexing table need power and I/O, but the table rotates a full 360°. This set up makes standard cable solutions ineffective.

Figure 3: Inductive coupling replacing the slip-ring

A slip ring could be installed at the base of the table, but since they are electromechanical devices, they are subject to wear out. And unfortunately, the signs for wearing are not evident and often it is only a lack of power that alerts workers to an issue.

An inductive coupling solution eliminates all the hassle of the mechanical parts. With non-contact inductive coupling, the base of a coupler could be mounted at the base of the table and the remote end could be mounted on the rotating part of the table.

Additionally, slip rings are susceptible to noise and vibration, but because inductive couplers do not have contact between the base and the remote, they do not have this problem.

Inductive couplers are typically IP67-rated, meaning they are not affected by dirt or water, or  vibrations, and most importantly, they are contact free so no maintenance is necessary.

Learn more about Balluff inductive couplers

Environmental Impacts – Choosing the Right Sensor for the Conditions

Last week’s blog spoke about reducing waste and downtime by implementing LEAN manufacturing procedures. This involves taking a proactive approach to improving efficiencies. This post will focus on selecting the right part for the job to reduce failure rates that lead to avoidable machine downtime and increased costs.

Hardly a day passes by where we are not contacted by a desperate end-user or equipment manufacturer seeking assistance with a situation of sensors failing at an unacceptably high rate.  Once we get down to the root cause of the failures, in most cases it’s a situation where the sensors are being applied in a manner which all but guarantees premature failure.

Not all sensors are created equal.  Some are intentionally designed for light-duty applications where the emphasis is more on economic cost rather than the ability to survive in rough service conditions.  Other sensors are specifically designed to meet the challenges of specific application environments, and as a result may carry a higher initial price.

Some things to think about when choosing a sensor for a new application:

  • What kind of environmental conditions will the sensor be exposed to?  For example:
    • Very low or very high temperatures
    • Constant exposure to or immersion in liquid
    • Continuous vibration
    • Extreme shock
    • Disruptive electrical noise (hand-held radios, welding fields, etc.)
    • Chemical contamination
    • Physical abuse or impact
    • Abrasion
    • High pressure washdown procedures
    • Exposure to outdoor conditions of UV sunlight, rain, ice, temperature swings, and condensing humidity
  • Is it possible to relocate the sensor to move it away from the difficult condition?
  • Is the sensor technology the best choice given the kind of application environment that it must operate in?
  • Is there a way to protect the sensor from exposure to the worst of the damaging effects?

When you reach for a catalog or jump on the internet to look for a sensor, it’s a good practice to just stop a moment first and make a list of the environmental challenges that the sensor could face.  Then you will be prepared to make an appropriate selection that best meets your expected application conditions.


Heavy metal parts being loaded into a welding cell can damage specialty nut detection sensors designed to stick through a hole in a part.  Plunger probes are a better solution.


Unprotected and non-bunkered sensors in damage prone areas result in premature sensor failure.

Mini Sensors Add Big Capabilities to Life Science Applications

1Miniaturization is one of the essential requirements for medical instruments and laboratory equipment used in the life science industry. As instruments get smaller and smaller, the sensor components must also become smaller, lighter and more flexible. The photoelectric sensors that were commonly used in general automation and applied in life science applications have met their limitations in size and performance.

2.jpgSensors used in these complex applications require numerous special characteristics such as high-quality optics, unique housing designs, precise LEDs with the best suited wavelength and the ability to be extremely flexible to fit in the extremely small space available. Sensors have been developed to meet the smallest possible installation footprint with the highest optical precision and enough flexibility to be installed where they are needed. These use integrated micro-precision optics that shape and focus the light beam exactly on the object without any undesirable side-effects to achieve the reliability demanded in today’s applications.

Previously many life science applications used conventional plastic fiber optic cables that were often too large and not flexible enough to be routed through the instruments. An alternative to the classic fiber cables is a “wired” fiber with precision micro-optics and extremely flexible cables with essentially no minimum bending radius and no significant coupling losses. Similar to a conventional fiber optic sensor, an external amplifier is required to provide a wide variety of functionalities to solve the demanding applications.

These sensors can be used in applications such as:

  • Precise detection of liquid levels using either attenuation or refraction with a small footprint
  • Reliable detection of transparent objects such as microscope slides or coverslips having various edge shapes
  • Detection of transparent liquids in micro-channels or capillaries
  • Reliable detection of individual droplets
  • Recognition of free-floating micro-bubbles in a tube that are smaller than the tube diameter and that cannot be seen by the human eye
  • Recognition of macro-bubbles that are the diameter of small tubes

For more information on photoelectric sensors that have the capability to meet the demands of today’s life science applications visit

Make Clear Water Visible to Your Sensors

In some industries such as life sciences it is necessary to detect clear water or clear liquids in a container or tube. This is even more challenging when the diameters of the tube are small, and the tube thickness is nearly as large as the stream of liquid.

The attenuation or gradual reduction of the intensity of the light beam in water and air can be directly compared. The attenuation of light in water can be attributed to light entering water at any angle other than at a right angle and can be refracted. The measurement of light through a tube is different because not only is the light attenuated by the liquid, but depending on where the light passes through the tube it can be refracted, diverted and or focused. As a result, the signal differences can be low.

Attenuation is typically the first choice if the liquids are opaque or colored. The requirements of the shape of the light beam and the alignment of the sensor add more complication to the application. The attenuation effect appears weaker in clear liquids. The principle does not work with reflective sensors since reflection is a surface effect and the light must pass through the liquid.OPTO_appl_08_sw-water

From spectral analysis it’s has been determined that the attenuation characteristics of water are heavily dependent on the wavelength of the light that is conducted through it. Sensors were developed for such applications. Typically, these sensors utilize LED’s in the upper infrared range of 1,450 nm. At this wavelength water literally absorbs the light and becomes opaque making detection more simplified and reliable.

This principle even works for fine capillaries and microchannels. Liquid detection can be very precise depending on the sensor size and the effective light beam. Light beams as small as 0.4mm can provide high resolution for small thin tubes typically found in microfluidics applications.

Versions of these sensors exist for applications that involve less transparent or semi-transparent vessels. Light at the 1450nm wavelength can pass through these containers or tubes and can be attenuated by the water. The main factor is that enough light makes its way through the walls of the container.

Through-beam sensors were developed for applications such as detecting clear liquids. These sensors are also available in extremely small dimensions and usually require an amplifier, or they can be supplied in a rugged fork sensor housing. The required sensor dimensions conform to the geometry of the vessel or container.

For more information on sensors for these types of applications contact your local Balluff representative or contact us at

Using Photoelectric Sensors in High Ambient Temperatures

Photoelectric sensors with laser and red-light are widely used in all areas of industrial automation. A clean, dust-free and dry environment is usually essential for the proper operation of photoeyes, however, they can be the best choice in many dirty and harsh applications. Examples of this are raw steel production in steel mills and further metallurgical processes down to casting and hot-rolling.

Cutting of billets at casting – Photo: M.Münzl
Cutting of billets at casting – Photo: M.Münzl

Photoelectric sensors are especially useful in these environments thanks to their long sensing distance and their ability to detect objects independent of their material.

Most photoelectric sensors are approved to work in ambient temperatures of 55 to 60 °C. The maximum temperature range of these sensors is most often limited by the specifications of the optical components of the sensor, like the laser-diodes, but by taking certain precautions photoelectric sensors can provide optimal use in much hotter applications.

Maximize the distance
In steel production many parts of the process are accompanied by high ambient temperatures. Liquid steel and iron have temperatures from 1400 to 1536 °C. Material temperature during continuous casting and hot-rolling are lower but still between 650 and 1250°C.

The impact of heat emission on the sensors can be reduced significantly by placing the sensor as far from the target object as possible, something you can’t do with inductive sensors which have a short range. Very often the remote mounting will allow the sensor to operate at room temperature.

If you intend to detect quite small objects with high precision, the maximum distance for the installation might be limited. For this purpose chemical resistant glass fibers are suitable and can handle temperatures up to 250 °C. These pre-fabricated fiber optic assemblies can be easily attached to the sensor. The sensor itself can be mounted on a cooler and protected place.

Detect Glowing Metals
If you want to reliably detect red-hot or white glowing steel parts with temperatures beyond 700 °C, you won’t be able to use standard laser or red-light sensors. Red-hot steel emits light at the same wavelength that it is used by photoelectric sensors. This can interfere with the function of the sensor. In such applications you need to use sensors which operate based on infrared light.

Add Protection

Sensor enclosure and protective cable sleeve
Sensor enclosure and protective cable sleeve

At many locations in the steel production process, the extensive heat is only temporary. In a hot rolling mill, a slab runs through a rougher mill multiple times before it continues to a multi-stage finishing mill stand to be rolled to the final thickness. After that the metal strip runs into the coiler to be winded up.
This process runs in sequence, and the glowing material is only present at each stage of production for a short time. Until a new slab runs out of the reheating furnace, temperatures normalize.

Standard sensors can work in these conditions, but you do run the risk of even temporary temperature hikes causing sensor failure and then dreaded downtime. To protect photoelectric sensors against temporary overheating, you can use a protective enclosure. These can provide mechanical and thermal protection to the sensors which often have plastic bodies. Additional protection can be achieved when a heat resistant sleeve is used around the cable.

Photoelectric sensors do have their limits and are not suitable for all applications, even when precautions are taken. Ask yourself these questions when deciding if they can be the right solution for your high temperature applications.

  • Which distance between the hot object and sensor can be realized?
  • What is the maximum temperature at this location?
  • How long will the sensor be exposed to the highest heat levels during normal operation and at breakdown?

Industrial sensors with diagnostic functionality

For monitoring functionality in industrial processes two aspects are relevant: Environmental awareness and self-awareness. Environmental awareness analyzes impacts which are provided by the environment (e.g. ambient temperature). Self-awareness collects information about the internal statuses of (sub)systems. The diagnostic monitoring of industrial processes, which are typically dynamic, is  not as critical as the monitoring of static situations. If you have many signal changes of sensors due to the activity of actuators, with each plausible sensor signal change you can be confident that the sensor is still alive and acts properly. A good example of this is rotation speed measurement of a wheel with an inductive sensor having many signal changes per second. If the actuator drove the wheel to turn but the sensor would not provide signal changes at its output, something would be wrong. The machine control would recognize this and would trigger a stop of the machine and inspection of the situation.

Inductive Sensors with self-awareness

For level sensing applications in cooling liquid tanks of metalworking applications inductive sensors with self-diagnostics are often used. The inductive sensors detect a metal flag which is mounted to a float with rod fixation.


Additionally, to the switching output these sensors have a monitor output which is a “high” signal when the sensor status is OK. In situations where the sensor is not OK, for example when there has been a short circuit or sensor coil damage, the monitor output will be a “low” signal.  This type of so called DESINA sensors is standardized according to ISO 23570-1 (Industrial automation systems and integration – Distributed installation in industrial applications – part 1: Sensors and actuators).

Dynamic Sensor control
Another approach is the Dynamic Sensor Control (DSC). Rather than using an additional monitoring output, this type of sensors provides impulses while it is “alive.”


The sensor output provides information about the position of the target with reference to the sensor as well as status diagnostic of the sensor itself.

With IO-Link communication even teaching of defined switching distance can be realized. The IO-Link concept allows you to distinguish between real-time process data (like target in/out of sensing range) and service data which may be transferred with a lower update rate (in the background of the real process).

For more information, visit

This blog post was originally published on the

Press Shops Boost Productivity with Non-Contact Connections

In press shops or stamping plants, downtime can easily cost thousands of dollars in productivity. This is especially true in the progressive stamping process where the cost of downtime is a lot higher as the entire automated stamping line is brought to a halt.

BIC presse detail 231013

Many strides have been made in modern stamping plants over the years to improve productivity and reduce the downtime. This has been led by implementing lean philosophies and adding error proofing systems to the processes. In-die-sensing is a great example, where a few inductive or photo-eye sensors are added to the die or mold to ensure parts are seated well and that the right die is in the right place and in the right press. In-die sensing almost eliminated common mistakes that caused die or mold damages or press damages by stamping on multiple parts or wrong parts.

In almost all of these cases, when the die or mold is replaced, the operator must connect the on-board sensors, typically with a multi-pin Harting connector or something similar to have the quick-connect ability. Unfortunately, often when the die or mold is pulled out of the press, operators forget to disconnect the connector. The shear force exerted by the movement of removing the die rips off the connector housing. This leads to an unplanned downtime and could take roughly 3-5 hours to get back to running the system.



Another challenge with the multi-conductor connectors is that over time, due to repeated changeouts, the pins in the connectors may break causing intermittent false trips or wrong die identification. This can lead to serious damages to the system.

Both challenges can be solved with the use of a non-contact coupling solution. The non-contact coupling, also known as an inductive coupling solution, is where one side of the connectors called “Base” and the other side called “Remote” exchange power and signals across an air-gap. The technology has been around for a long time and has been applied in the industrial automation space for more than a decade, primarily in tool changing applications or indexing tables as a replacement for slip-rings. For more information on inductive coupling here are a few blogs (1) Inductive Coupling – Simple Concept for Complex Automation Part 1,  (2) Inductive Coupling – Simple Concept for Complex Automation Part 2

For press automation, the “Base” side can be affixed to the press and the “Remote” side can be mounted on a die or mold, in such a way that when the die is placed properly, the two sides of the coupler can be in the close proximity to each other (within 2-5mm). This solution can power the sensors in the die and can help transfer up to 12 signals. Or, with IO-Link based inductive coupling, more flexibility and smarts can be added to the die. We will discuss IO-Link based inductive coupling for press automation in an upcoming blog.

Some advantages of inductive coupling over the connectorized solution:

  • Since there are no pins or mechanical parts, inductive coupling is a practically maintenance-free solution
  • Additional LEDs on the couplers to indicate in-zone and power status help with quick troubleshooting, compared to figuring out which pins are bad or what is wrong with the sensors.
  • Inductive couplers are typically IP67 rated, so water ingress, dust, oil, or any other environmental factor does not affect the function of the couplers
  • Alignment of the couplers does not have to be perfect if the base and remote are in close proximity. If the press area experiences drastic changes in humidity or temperature, that would not affect the couplers.
  • There are multiple form factors to fit the need of the application.

In short, press automation can gain a productivity boost, by simply changing out the connectors to non-contact ones.


Improve Your Feeder Bowl System (and Other Standard Equipment) with IO-Link

One of the most common devices used in manufacturing is the tried and true feeder bowl system. Used for decades, feeder bowls take bulk parts, orients them correctly and then feeds them to the next operation, usually a pick-and-place robot. It can be an effective device, but far too often, the feeder bowl can be a source of cycle-time slowdowns. Alerts are commonly used to signal when a feed problem is occurring but lack the exact cause of the slow down.

feeder bowl

A feed system’s feed rate can be reduced my many factors. Some of these include:

  • Operators slow to add parts to the bowl or hopper
  • Hopper slow to feed the bowl
  • Speeds set incorrectly on hopper, bowl or feed track
  • Part tolerance drift or feeder tooling out of adjustment

With today’s Smart IO-Link sensors incorporating counting and timing functions, most of the slow-down factors can be easily seen through an IIoT connection. Sensors can now time how long critical functions take. As the times drift from ideal, this information can be collected and communicated upstream.

A common example of a feed system slow-down is a slow hopper feed to the bowl. When using Smart IO-Link sensors, operators can see specifically that the hopper feed time is too long. The sensor indicates a problem with the hopper but not the bowl or feed tracks. Without IO-Link, operators would simply be told the overall feed system is slow and not see the real problem. This example is also true for the hopper in-feed (potential operator problem), feed track speed and overall performance. All critical operations are now visible and known to all.

For examples of Balluff’s smart IO-Link sensors, check out our ADCAP sensor.

Polarized Retroreflective Sensors: A Solution for Detecting Highly Reflective Objects

The complexity of factory automation creates constant challenges which drive innovation in the industry. One of these challenges involves the ability to accurately detect the presence of shiny or highly reflective objects. This is a common challenge faced in a variety of applications, from sensing wheels in an automotive facility to detecting an aluminum can for filling purposes at a beverage plant. However, thanks to advancements in photoelectric sensing technologies, there is a reliable solution for those type of applications.

Why are highly reflective objects a challenge?

Light reflects from these types of objects in different directions, and with minimum energy loss. This can cause the receiver of a photoelectric sensor to be unable to differentiate between a signal received from the emitter or a signal received from a shiny object. In the case of a diffuse sensor, there is also the possibility that when trying to detect a shiny object, the light will reflect away from the receiver causing the sensor to ignore the target.

So how do we control the direction of the light going back to the receiver, and avoid false triggering from other light sources? The answer is in polarized retroreflective sensors.

Retroreflective sensors require a reflector which reflects the light back to the sensor allowing it to be captured by the receiver. This is achieved by incorporating sets of three mirrors oriented at right angles from each other (referred to as corner cubes). A light beam entering this system is reflected by all three surfaces and exits parallel to the incident beam. Additionally, corner cubes are said to be optically active as they rotate the plane of oscillation of the light by 90 degrees. This concept, along with polarization, allow this type of sensor to accurately detect shiny objects.


Light emitted by a regular light source oscillates in planes on dispersal axes. If the light meets a polarizing filter (fine line grid), only the light oscillating parallel to the grid is let through (see figure 1 below).

Figure 1_AR
Figure 1

In polarized retroreflective sensors, a horizontal polarized filter is placed in front of the emitter and a vertical one in front of the receiver. By doing this, the transmitted light oscillates horizontally until it hits the reflector. The corner cubes of the reflector would then rotate the polarization direction by 90 degrees and reflect the light back to the sensor. This way, the returning light can pass through the vertical polarized filter on the receiver as shown below.

Figure 2_AR
Figure 2

With the use of polarization and corner cubed reflectors, retroreflective sensors can create a closed light circuit which ensures that light detected by the receiver was sourced exclusively by the emitter. This creates a great solution for applications where highly reflective targets are influencing the accuracy of sensors or causing them to malfunction. By ensuring proper operation of photoelectric sensors, unplanned downtime can be avoided, and overall process efficiency can be improved.

Capacitive Sensors: Versatile enough for most (but not all) detection applications

capacitive 1

Capacitive sensors are versatile for use in numerous applications. They can be used to detect objects such as glass, wood, paper, plastic, ceramic, and more. Capacitive sensors used to detect objects are easily identified by the flush mounting or shielded face of the sensor. This shielding causes the electrostatic field to be short and conical shaped, much like the shielded version of an inductive proximity sensor.

capacitive 2Just as there are non-flush or unshielded inductive sensors, there are non-flush capacitive sensors, and the mounting and housing look the same. The non-flush capacitive sensors have a large spherical field which allows them to be used in level detection, including detection of liquids and granular solids. Levels can be detected either directly with the sensor making contact with the medium, or indirectly with the sensor sensing the medium through a non-metallic container wall.

Capacitive sensors are discrete devices so once you adjust the sensitivity to detect the target while ignoring the container, the sensor is either on or off. Also remember that the sensor is looking for the dielectric constant in the case of a standard capacitive sensor or the conductivity of a water based liquid in the case of the hybrid technology.

Recent technology advances with remote amplifiers have allowed capacitive sensors to provide an analog output or a digital value over IO-Link. As previously mentioned, these sensors are based off of a dielectric constant so the analog value being created is dependent on the media being sensed.

While capacitive sensors are versatile to work in many applications, they are not the right choice for all applications.

Recently a customer inquired if a capacitive sensor could detect the density of an substance and unfortunately the short answer is no, though in some applications the analog sensors can detect different levels of media if it can be separated in a centrifuge. Also, capacitive sensors may not detect small amounts of media as the dielectric constant of the media must be higher than the container that holds the media.

There are three important steps in applying a capacitive sensor — test it, test it and test it one more time. During your testing procedures be sure to test it under the best and worse conditions. Also like any other electronic device temperature can have an affect although it may be negligible there will be some affect.

For more information on capacitive sensors visit