Choosing a Contactless Sensor to Measure Objects at a Distance

Three options come to mind for determining which contactless sensor to use when measuring objects at a distance: photoelectric sensors, ultrasonic sensors, and radar detection. Understanding the key differences among these types of technologies and how they work can help you decide which technology will work best for your application.

Photoelectric sensor

The photoelectric sensor has an emitter that sends out a light source. Then a receiver receives the light source. The common light source LED (Light Emitting Diodes), has three different types:

    • Visible light (usually red light) has the shortest wavelength, but allows for easy installment and alignment as the light can be seen.
    • Lasers are amplified beams that can deliver a large amount of energy over a distance into a small spot, allowing for precise measurement.
    • Infrared light is electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths longer than visible light, generally making them invisible to the humans. This allows for infrared to be used in harsher environments that contain particles in the air.

Along with three types of LEDs, are three models of photoelectric sensors:

    • The retro-reflective sensor model includes both an emitter and receiver in one unit and a reflector across from it. The emitter sends the light source to the reflector which then reflects the light back to the receiver. When an object comes between the reflector and the emitter, the light source cannot be reflected.
    • The through-beam sensor has an emitter and receiver in two separate units installed across from the emitter. When an object breaks the light beam, the receiver cannot receive the light source.
    • The diffuse sensor includes an emitter and receiver built into one unit. Rather than having a reflector installed across from it the light source is reflective off the object back to the receiver.

The most common application for photoelectric sensors is in detecting part presence or absence. Photoelectric sensors do not work well in environments that have dirt, dust, or vibration. They also do not perform well with detecting clear or shiny objects.

Ultrasonic sensor

The ultrasonic sensor has an emitter that sends a sound wave at a frequency higher than what a human can hear to the receiver.  The two modes of an ultrasonic sensor include:

    • Echo mode, also known as a diffused mode, has an emitter and receiver built into the same unit. The object detection works with this mode is that the emitter sends out the sound wave, the wave then bounces off the target and returns to the receiver. The distance of an object can be determined by timing how long it takes for the sound wave to bounce back to the receiver.
    • The second type of mode is the opposed mode. The opposed mode has the emitter and receiver as two separate units. Object detection for this mode works by the emitter will be set up across from the receiver and will be sending sound waves continuously and an object will be detected once it breaks the field, similarly to how photoelectric sensors work.

Common applications for ultrasonic sensors include liquid level detection, uneven surface level detection, and sensing clear or transparent objects. They can also be used as substitutes for applications that are not suitable for photoelectric sensors.

Ultrasonic sensors do not work well, however, in environments that have foam, vapors, and dust. The reason for this is that ultrasonic uses sound waves need a medium, such as air, to travel through. Particles or other obstructions in the air interfere with the sound waves being produced. Also, ultrasonic sensors do not work in vacuums which don’t contain air.

Radar detection

Radar is a system composed of a transmitter, a transmitting antenna, a receiving antenna, a receiver, and a processor. It works like a diffuse mode ultrasonic sensor. The transmitter sends out a wave, the wave echoes off an object, and the receiver receives the wave. Unlike a sound wave, the radar uses pulsed or continuous radio waves. These wavelengths are longer than infrared light and can determine the range, angle, and velocity of objects. radar also has a processor that determines the properties of the object.

Common applications for radar include speed and distance detection, aircraft detection, ship detection, spacecraft detection, and weather formations. Unlike ultrasonic sensors, radar can work in environments that contain foam, vapors, or dust. They can also be used in vacuums. Radio waves are a form of electromagnetic waves that do not require a transmission medium to travel. An application in which radar does not perform well is detecting dry powders and grains. These substances have low dielectric constants, which are usually non-conductive and have low amounts of moisture.

Choosing from an ultrasonic sensor, photoelectric sensor, or radar comes down to the technology being used. LEDs are great at detecting part presences and absence of various sizes. Sound waves are readily able to detect liquid levels, uneven surfaces, and part presence. Electromagnetic waves can be used in environments that include particles and other substances in the air. It also works in environments where air is not present at all. One technology is not better than the other; each has its strengths and its weaknesses. Where one cannot work, the others typically can.

Shedding Light on Different Types of Photoelectric Sensors

Photoelectric sensors have been around for more than 50 years and are used in everyday things – from garage door openers to highly automated assembly lines that produce the food we eat and the cars we drive.

The correct use of photoelectric sensors in a manufacturing process is important to ensure machines can perform their required actions. Over the years they have evolved into many different forms.

But, how do you know which is the right sensor for your application?  Let’s take a quick look at the different types and why you would choose one over another for your needs.

Diffuse sensors

    • Ideal for detecting contrast differences, depending on the surface, color, and material
    • Detects in Light-On or Dark-On mode, depending on the target
    • Economical and easy to mount and align, thanks to visible light beams
    • Shorter ranges as compared to retroreflective and through-beam sensors
    • IR (Infrared) light beams available for better detection in harsh environments
    • Laser light versions are available for more precise detection when needed
    • Mounting includes only one electrical device

Diffuse sensor with background suppression

    • Reliable object detection with various operating ranges, and independent of surface, color, and material
    • Detects objects against very similar backgrounds – even if they are very dark against a bright background
    • Almost constant scanning range even with different reflectance
    • Only one electrical device without reflectors or separate receivers
    • Good option if you cannot use a through-beam or retroreflective sensor
    • With red light or the laser red light that is ideally suited for detecting small parts

Retroreflective sensors

    • Simple alignment thanks to generous mounting tolerances
    • Large reflectors for longer ranges
    • Reliable detection, regardless of surface, color, and material
    • Polarized light filters are available to assist with detecting shiny objects
    • Mounting includes only one electrical device, plus a reflector
    • Most repeatable sensor for clear object detection; light passes through clear target 2X’s giving a greater change in light received by the sensor

Through-beam sensors

    • Ideal for positioning tasks, thanks to excellent reproducibility
    • Most reliable detection method for objects, especially on conveyor applications
    • Extremely resistant to contamination and suitable for harsh environments
    • Ideally suited for large operating ranges
    • Transmitter and receiver in separate housings

Fork sensors

    • Different light types (red light, infrared, laser)
    • Robust metal housing
    • Simple alignment to the object
    • High optical resolution and reproducibility
    • Fork widths in different sizes with standardized mounting holes
    • Identical mechanical and optical axes
    • The transmitter and receiver are firmly aligned to each other, yielding high process reliability

The next time you need to choose a photoelectric sensor for your manufacturing process, consider these features of each type to ensure the sensor is performing optimally in your application.

Sensor Mounting Made Easy

So, you’ve figured out the best way to detect the product shuttle paddle in your cartoning/packaging machine needs a visible red laser distance sensor. It’s taken some time to validate that this is the right sensor and it will be a reliable, long-term solution.

But then you realize there are some mechanical issues involved with the sensor’s placement and positioning that will require a bit of customization to mount it in the optimal location. Now things may have just become complicated. If you can’t design the additional mounting parts yourself, you’ll have to find someone who can. And then you have to deal with the fabrication side. This all takes time and more effort than just buying the sensor.

Or does it?

Off-the-shelf solutions

It doesn’t have to be that complex. There are possible off-the-self solutions you can consider that will make this critical step of providing a reliable mounting solution – possibly as straightforward as choosing the right sensor. Multiple companies offer sensor mounting systems that accommodate standard sensor brackets. Over the years, companies have continued to develop new mounting brackets for many of their sensor products, from photoelectric sensors and reflectors to proximity sensors to even RFID heads and linear transducers.

So it’s only natural to take that one step further and create a mounting apparatus and system that not only provides a mounting bracket, but also a stable platform that incorporates the device’s mounting bracket with things like stand-off posts, adjustable connection joints, and mounting bases. Such a flexible and extensive system can solve mounting challenges with parts you can purchase, instead of having to fabricate.

Imagine in the example above you need to mount the laser distance sensor off the machine’s base and offset it in a way that doesn’t interfere with the other moving parts of the cartoner. Think of these mounting systems and parts as a kind of Erector Set for sensing devices. You can piece together the required mounting bracket with a set of brace or extension rods and a mounting base that raises the sensor up and off the machine base and even angles it to allow for pointing at the target in the most optimal way.

The following are some mounting solutions for a variety of sensors:

These represent only a small number of different ways to mix and match sensor device brackets and mounting components to find a solid, reliable and off-the-shelf mounting solution for your next mounting challenge. So before considering the customization route, next time take a look at what might already be out there for vendors. It could make your life a lot simpler.

Capacitive, the Other Proximity Sensor

What is the first thing that comes to mind if someone says “proximity sensor?” My guess is the inductive sensor, and justly so because it is the most used sensor in automation today. There are other technologies that use the term proximity in describing the sensing mode, including diffuse or proximity photoelectric sensors that use the reflectivity of the object to change states and proximity mode of ultrasonic sensors that use high-frequency sound waves to detect objects. All these sensors detect objects that are in close proximity to the sensor without making physical contact. One of the most overlooked or forgotten proximity sensors on the market today is the capacitive sensor.

Capacitive sensors are suitable for solving numerous applications. These sensors can be used to detect objects, such as glass, wood, paper, plastic, or ceramic, regardless of material color, texture, or finish. The list goes on and on. Since capacitive sensors can detect virtually anything, they can detect levels of liquids including water, oil, glue, and so forth, and they can detect levels of solids like plastic granules, soap powder, sand, and just about anything else. Levels can be detected either directly, when the sensor touches the medium, or indirectly when it senses the medium through a non-metallic container wall.

Capacitive sensors overview

Like any other sensor, there are certain considerations to account for when applying capacitive, multipurpose sensors, including:

1 – Target

    • Capacitive sensors can detect virtually any material.
    • The target material’s dielectric constant determines the reduction factor of the sensor. Metal / Water > Wood > Plastic > Paper.
    • The target size must be equal to or larger than the sensor face.

2 – Sensing distance

    • The rated sensing distance, or what you see in a catalog, is based on a mild steel target that is the same size as the sensor face.
    • The effective sensing distance considers mounting, supply voltage, and temperature. It is adjusted by the integral potentiometer or other means.
    • Additional influences that affect the sensing distance are the sensor housing shape, sensor face size, and the mounting style of the sensor (flush, non-flush).

3 – Environment

    • Temperatures from 160 to 180°F require special considerations. The high-temperature version sensors should be used in applications above this value.
    • Wet or very humid applications can cause false positives if the dielectric strength of the target is low.
    • In most instances, dust or material buildup can be tuned out if the target dielectric is higher than the dust contamination.

4 – Mounting

    • Installing capacitive sensors is very similar to installing inductive sensors. Flush sensors can be installed flush to the surrounding material. The distance between the sensors is two times the diameter of the sensing distance.
    • Non-flush sensors must have a free area around the sensor at least one diameter of the sensor or the sensing distance.

5 – Connector

    • Quick disconnect – M8 or M12.
    • Potted cable.

6 – Sensor

    • The sensor sensing area or face must be smaller or equal to the target material.
    • Maximum sensing distance is measured on metal – reduction factor will influence all sensing distances.
    • Use flush versions to reduce the effects of the surrounding material. Some plastic sensors will have a reduced sensing range when embedded in metal. Use a flush stainless-steel body to get the full sensing range.

These are just a few things to keep in mind when applying capacitive sensors. There is not “a” capacitive sensor application – but there are many which can be solved cost-effectively and reliably with these sensors.

Choosing Between M18 and Flatpack Proxes

Both M18s and flatpacks are inductive or proximity sensors that are widely used in mechanical engineering and industrial automation applications. Generally, they are similar in that they produce an electromagnetic field that reacts to a metal target when it approaches the sensor head. And the coil in both sensors is roughly the same size, so they have the same sensing range – between 5 to 8 millimeters. They also both work well in harsh environments, such as welding.

There are, however, some specific differences between the M18 and flatpack sensors that are worth consideration when setting up production.

M18

One benefit of the M18 sensor is that it’s adjustable. It has threads around it that allow you to adjust it up or down one millimeter every time you turn it 360 degrees. The M18 can take up a lot of space in a fixture, however. It has a standard length of around two inches long and, when you add a connector, it can be a problem when space is an issue.

Flatpack

A flatpack, on the other hand, has a more compact style and format while offering the same sensing range. The mounting of the flatpack provides a fixed distance so it offers less adjustability of the M18, but its small size delivers flexibility in installation and allows use in much tighter fixes and positions.

The flatpack also comes with a ceramic face and a welding cable, especially suited for harsh and demanding applications. You can also get it with a special glass composite protective face, a stainless-steel face, or a steel face with special coatings on it.

Each housing has its place, based on your detection application, of course. But having them both in your portfolio can expand your ability to solve your applications with sensor specificity.

Check out this previous blog for more information on inductive sensors and their unlimited uses in automation.

Inductive Sensors and Their Unlimited Uses in Automation

Inductive sensors (also known as proximity sensors or proxes) are the most commonly used sensors in mechanical engineering and industrial automation. When they were invented in the 1960s, they marked a milestone in the development of control systems. In a nutshell, they generate an electromagnetic field that reacts to metal targets that approach the sensor head. They even work in harsh environments and can solve versatile applications.

There are hardly any industrial machines that work without inductive sensors. So, what can be solved with one, two, three, or more of them?

What can you do with one inductive sensor?

Inductive sensors are often used to detect an end position. This could be in a machine for end-of-travel detection, but also in a hydraulic cylinder or a linear direct drive as an end-of-stroke sensor. In machine control, they detect many positions and trigger other events. Another application is speed monitoring with a tooth wheel.

What can you do with two inductive sensors?

By just adding one more sensor you can get the direction of rotational motion and take the place of a more expensive encoder. In a case where you have a start and end position, this can also be solved with a second inductive sensor.

What can you do with three inductive sensors?

In case of the tooth wheel application, the third sensor can provide a reference signal and the solution turns into a multiturn rotary encoder.

What can I do with four inductive sensors and more?

For multi-point positioning, it may make sense to switch to a measurement solution, which can also be inductive. Beyond that, an array of inductive sensors can solve identification applications: In an array of 2 by 2 sensors, there are already 16 different unique combinations of holes in a hole plate. In an array of 3 by 3, it would be 512 combinations.

Looking Into & Through Transparent Material With Photoelectric Sensors

Advance automated manufacturing relies on sensor equipment to ensure each step of the process is done correctly, reliably, and effectively. For many standard applications, inductive, capacitive, or basic photoelectric sensors can do a fine job of monitoring and maintaining the automated manufacturing process. However, when transparent materials are the target, you need a different type of sensor, and maybe even need to think differently about how you will use it.

What are transparent materials?

When I think of transparent materials, water, glass, plexiglass, polymers, soaps, cooling agents, and packaging all come to mind. Because transparent material absorbs very little of the emitted red LED light, standard photoelectric sensors struggle on this type of application. If light can make its way back to the receiver, how can you tell if the beam was broken or not? By measuring the amount of light returned, instead of just if it is there or not, we can detect a transparent material and learn how transparent it is.

Imagine being able to determine proper mixes or thicknesses of liquid based on a transparency scale associated to a value of returned light. Another application that I believe a transparent material photoelectric senor would be ideal for is the thickness of a clear bottle. Imagine the wall thickness being crucial to the integrity of the bottle. Again, we would measure the amount of light allowed back to the receiver instead of an expensive measurement laser or even worse, a time-draining manual caliper.

Transparent material sensor vs. standard photoelectric sensor

So how does a transparent material sensor differ from a standard photoelectric sensor? Usually, the type of light is key. UV light is absorbed much greater than other wavelengths, like red or blue LEDs you find in standard photoelectric sensors. To add another level, you polarize that UV light to better control the light back into the receiver. Polarized UV light with a polarized reflector is the best combination. This can be done on a large or micro scale based on the sensor head size and build.

Uses for transparent material sensor include packaging trays, level tubes, medical tests, adhesive extrusion, and bottle fill levels, just to name a few. Transparent materials are everywhere, and the technology has matured. Make sure you are looking into specialized sensor technologies and working through best set-up practices to ensure reliable detection of transparent materials.

How IO-Link Sensors With Condition Monitoring Features Work With PLCs

As manufacturers continually look for ways to maximize productivity and eliminate waste, automation sensors are taking on a new role in the plant. Once, sensors were used only to provide detection or measurement data so the PLC could process it and run the machine. Today, sensors with IO-Link measure environmental conditions like temperature, humidity, ambient pressure, vibration, inclination, operating hours, and signal strength. By setting alarm thresholds, it’s possible to program the PLC to use the resulting condition monitoring data to keep machines running smoothly.

Real-time data for real-time response

A sensor with condition monitoring features allows a PLC to use real-time data with the same speed it uses a sensor’s primary process data. This typically requires setting an alarm threshold at the sensor and a response to those alarms at the PLC.

When a vibration threshold is set up on the sensor and vibration occurs, for example, the PLC can alert the machine operator to quickly check the area, or even stop the machine, to look for a product jam, incorrect part, or whatever may be causing the vibration. By reacting to the alarm immediately, workers can reduce product waste and scrap.

Inclination feedback can provide diagnostics in troubleshooting. Suppose a sensor gets bumped and no longer detects its target, for example. The inclination alarm set in the sensor will indicate after a certain degree of movement that the sensor will no longer detect the part. The inclination readout can also help realign the sensor to the correct position.

Detection of other environmental factors, including humidity and higher-than-normal internal temperatures, can also be set, providing feedback on issues such as the unwanted presence of water or the machine running hotter than normal. Knowing these things in real-time can stop the PLC from running, preventing the breakdown of other critical machine components, such as motors and gearboxes.

These alarm bits can come from the sensors individually or combined together inside the sensor. Simple logic, like OR and AND statements, can be set on the sensor in the case of vibration OR inclination OR temperature alarm OR humidity, output a discrete signal to pin 2 of the sensors. Then pin 2 can be fed back through the same sensor cable as a discrete alarm signal to the PLC. A single bit showing when an alarm occurs can alert the operator to look into the alarm condition before running the machine. Otherwise, a simple ladder rung can be added in the PLC to look at a single discrete alarm bit and put the machine into a safe mode if conditions require it.

In a way, the sensor monitors itself for environmental conditions and alerts the PLC when necessary. The PLC does not need to create extra logic to monitor the different variables.

Other critical data points, such as operating hours, boot cycle counters, and current and voltage consumption, can help establish a preventative and predictive maintenance schedule. These data sets are available internally on the sensors and can be read out to help develop maintenance schedules and cut down on surprise downtimes.

Beyond the immediate benefits of the data, it can be analyzed and trended over time to see the best use cases of each. Just as a PLC shouldn’t be monitoring each alarm condition individually, this data must not be gathered in the PLC, as there is typically only a limited amount of memory, and the job of the PLC is to control the machines.

This is where the IT world of high-level supervision of machines and processes comes into play. Part two of my blog will explore how to integrate this sensor data into the IT level for use alongside the PLC.

Tire Industry Automation: When a Photo-Eye Is Failing, Try an Ultrasonic Sensor

Should you use a photo-eye or an ultrasonic sensor for your automation application? This is a great question for tire industry manufacturing.

I was recently at a tire manufacturing plant when a maintenance technician asked me to suggest a photoelectric sensor for a large upgrade project he had coming up. I asked him about the application, project, and what other sensors he was considering.

His reply was a little startling. He said he had always used photo-eyes, but he couldn’t find a dependable one, so he would continually try different brands. My experience in this industry, along with good sensor training and advice from my colleague Jack Moermond, Balluff Sensor Products Manager, immediately made me think that photo-eye sensors were not the right choice for this application.

As I asked more questions, the problem became clear. The tire material the technician was detecting was black and dull. This type of material absorbs light and does not reflect it reliably back to the sensor. Also, environmental factors, such as dust and residue, can diminish a photo-eye’s signal quality.

Ultrasonic sensors for non-reflective materials and harsh environments

The technician didn’t have much experience with ultrasonic sensors, so I went on to explain why these may be a better solution for his application.

While photoelectric sensors send light beams to detect the presence of or measure the distance to an object, ultrasonics bounce sound waves off a target. This means that ultrasonics can be used in applications where an object’s reflectivity isn’t predictable, like with liquids, clear glass or plastic, or other materials. Dust build up on the face of an ultrasonic sensor does not give a false output. Ultrasonic sensors actually have a dead zone a few millimeters from the face where they won’t detect an object until the wave clears the dead zone, so take this into consideration when planning where to install an ultrasonic sensor.

Tire detection for process reliability with BUS ultrasonic sensors

Tire industry applications

The following are some popular tire industry applications where it might be better to choose an ultrasonic sensor over a photo-eye sensor.

    • The tire building process requires a lot of winding and unwinding of material to build the different layers of a tire. As this material is fed through the machines it starts to sag and loop. An ultrasonic sensor in this location will monitor how much sag and loop is in the process.
    • When tires are being loaded into curing presses, the press needs to confirm that the correct size tire is in place. An ultrasonic sensor can measure the height or width of the tire from the sides or top for confirmation.
    • Ultrasonic sensors are great at detecting if a tire or material is in place before a process starts.
    • Hydraulic systems are common in tire manufacturing. Ultrasonic sensors are good for hydraulic fluid level monitoring. Tying them to a SmartLight offers a visual reference and alarm output if needed.
    • Everyone knows the term “wig-wag” in tire mixing and extrusion. The sheets of wig-wag require monitoring as they are fed through the process. When this material gets close to being used up, a new wig-wag must be used.
Wig-wag stacks

So, when there is an application for a photo-eye, especially in a tire manufacturing plant, keep in mind that, rather than a photoelectric sensor, an ultrasonic may be a better option.

The maintenance technician I spoke with is now looking at different options of ultrasonics to use. He said I gave him something new to think about for his machines and opened the door for adding this technology to his plant.

Happy hunting!

Why Use Ultrasonic Sensors?

by Nick Smith

When choosing what sensor to use in different applications, it is important to first look at how they operate. Capacitive sensors generate an electrical field that can detect various liquids or other materials, such as glass, wood, paper, ceramic, and more at a close. Photoelectric sensors emit a light beam that is either received by a light sensor or bounced back to the emitter to detect an object’s presence or measure the distance to an object. Ultrasonic sensors bounce a sound wave off objects to detect them, which can make them a good solution for a surprising variety of uses.

How ultrasonic sensors operate

Ultrasonic sensors operate by emitting an ultra-high frequency sound wave that ranges from 300 MHz to 3 GHz, which is well above the 15-17 kHz range that humans can hear that bounces off the target object. The sensor measures the amount of time that sound wave takes to return to calculate the distance to the object. Ultrasonic sensors send these sound waves in a wider beam than a photoelectric uses, so they can more easily detect objects in a dusty or dirty environment. And with a greater sensing distance than capacitive sensors, they can be installed at a safe distance and still function effectively

Common applications for ultrasonic sensors

These capabilities together make ultrasonic sensors a great choice for tasks like detecting fill level, stack height and object presence. Sound waves are unaffected by the color, transparency, or consistency of an object or liquid, which makes it an obvious contender in the packaging, food, and beverage industry and many other industries with similar manufacturing processes.

So to monitor glass bottles as they travel on a conveyor, an ultrasonic sensor could be a good choice. These sensors will consistently work well detecting clear or reflective materials such as water, paint, glass, etc., which can cause difficulties for photoelectric sensors. Another benefit of these sensors is the ability to mount them further away from their targets. For example, there are ultrasonics that can be mounted between 20 to 8000 mm away from the object. After tuning your setup, you can detect very small objects as easily as larger, more visible items.

Another common application for ultrasonic sensors is monitoring boxes. Properly implemented ultrasonic sensors can detect different sizes of boxes as they travel on a conveyor belt by constantly emitting and receiving sound waves. This means that each box or object will be measured by the sound wave. Different photoelectric and capacitive sensors may fail to detect the full presence of an object and may only be able to detect a specific point on an object.

When it comes to all types of different fill-level applications, there are many ways a sensor can monitor various liquids and solids. The width of an ultrasonic beam can be increased to detect a wider area of solid material in a hopper or decreased to give a precise measurement on liquid levels. This ability to detect a smaller or larger surface area gives the user more utility when deciding how to meet the requirements of an application. Although capacitive sensors can detect fill levels very precisely as well, factors like beam width and sensing distance might make ultrasonic a better choice.

With so many different sensor technologies available and factors like target material and sensing distance being such important factors, choosing the best sensor for an application can be demanding. A trusted expert who is familiar with these different technologies and the factors related to your applications and materials can help you confidently move toward the smart factory of the future.