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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
In my line of work in Life Sciences, we often deal with liquid media and bubble detection evaluation through a vessel or a tube. This can be done by using the absorption principle or the refraction principle with through-beam-configured optical sensors. These are commonly embedded in medical devices or lab instruments.
This configuration provides strong benefits:
Ability to evaluate liquid media
Detect multiple events
How does it work?
The refraction principle is based on the media’s refraction index. It uses an emitted light source (Tx) that is angled to limit the light falling on the receiver (Rx, Figure 1). When the light passes through a liquid, refraction causes the light to focus on the receiver as a beam (known as a “beam-make” configuration). All liquids and common vessel materials (silicon, plastic, glass, etc.) have a known refraction index. These sensors will detect those refraction differences and output a signal.
The absorption principle is preferred when a media’s absorption index is high. First, a beam is established through a vessel or tube (Figure 2). Light sources in the 1500nm range work best for aqueous-based media such as water. As a high absorption index liquid enters the tube, it will block the light (known as a beam-break configuration). The sensor detects this loss of light.
Discrete on-off signals are easily used by a control system. However, by using the actual light value information (commonly analog), more data can be extracted. This is becoming more popular now and can be done with either sensing principle. By using this light-value information, you can differentiate between types of media, measure concentrations, identify multiple objects (e.g., filter in an IV and the media) and much more.
There is a lot to know about through-beam sensors, so please leave a comment below if you have questions on how you can benefit from this technology.
In today’s automotive plants and their tier suppliers, the weld cell is known to be one of the most hostile environments for sensors. Weld slag accumulation, elevated ambient temperatures, impacts by moving parts, and strong electromagnetic fields can all degrade sensor performance and cause false triggering. It is widely accepted that sensors will have a limited life span in most plants.
Poor sensor selection does mean higher failure rates which cause welders in all industries increased downtime, unnecessary maintenance, lost profits, and delayed delivery. There are many sensor features designed specifically to withstand these harsh welding environments and the problems that come along with them to combat this.
In the search for a suitable sensor for your welding application, you are sure to come across the terms weld immune and weld field immune. What do these words mean? Are they the same thing? And will they last in my weld cell?
Weld Immune ≠ Weld Field Immune
At first glance, it is easy to understand why someone may confuse these two terms or assume they are one and the same.
Weld field immune is a specific term referring to sensors designed to withstand strong electromagnetic fields. In some welding areas, especially very close to the weld gun, welders can generate strong magnetic fields. When this magnetic field is present, it can cause a standard sensor to perform intermittently, like flickering and false outputs.
Weld field immune sensors have special filtering and robust circuitry that withstand the influence of strong magnetic fields and avoid false triggers. This is also called magnetic field immune since they also perform well in any area with high magnetic noise.
On the other hand, weld immune is a broad term used to describe a sensor designed with any features that increase its performance in a welding application. It could refer to one or multiple sensor features, including:
Weld spatter resistant coatings
Different housing or sensor face materials
Magnetic field immunity
A weld field immune sensor might be listed with the numerous weld immune sensors with special coatings and features, but that does not necessarily mean any of those other sensors are immune to weld fields. This is why it is always important to check the individual sensor specifications to ensure it is suitable for your application.
In an application where a sensor is failing due to impact damage or weld slag spatter, a steel face sensor with a weld resistant coating could be a great solution. If this sensor isn’t close to the weld gun and isn’t exposed to any strong magnetic fields, there is really no need for it to be weld field immune. The important features are the steel face and coating that can protect it against impact and weld slag sticking to it. This sensor would be classified as weld immune.
In another application where a sensor near the weld gun side of the welding procedure where MIG welding is performed, this location is subject to arc blow that can create a strong magnetic field at the weld wire tip location. In this situation, having a weld field immune sensor would be important to avoid false triggers that the magnetic field may cause. Additionally, being close to a MIG weld gun, it would also be wise to consider a sensor with other weld immune properties, like a weld slag resistant coating and a thermal barrier, to protect against high heat and weld slag.
Weld field immunity is just one of many features you can select when picking the best sensor for your application. Whether the issue is weld slag accumulation, elevated ambient temperatures, part impact, or strong electromagnetic fields, there are many weld immune solutions to consider. Check the placement and conditions of the sensors you’re using to decide which weld-immune features are needed for each sensor.
If you have ever walked through a stamping department at a metal forming facility, you have heard the rhythmic sound of the press stamping out parts, thump, thump. The stamping department is the heart manufacturing facility, and the noise you hear is the heartbeat of the plant. If it stops, the whole plant comes to a halt. With increasing demands for higher production rates, less downtime, and reduction in bad parts, stamping departments are under ever-increasing pressure to optimize the press department through die protection and error-proofing programs.
The die-protection risk assessment team
The first step in implementing or optimizing a die protection program is to perform a die-protection risk assessment. This is much like risk assessments conducted for safety applications, except they are done for each die set. To do this, build a team of people from various positions in the press department like tool makers, operators, and set-up teams.
Once this team is formed, they can help identify any incidents that could occur during the stamping operations for each die set and determine the likelihood and the severity of possible harm. With this information, they can identify which events have a higher risk/severity and determine what additional measures they should implement to prevent these incidents. An audit is possible even if there are already some die protection sensors in place to determine if there are more that should be added and verify the ones in place are appropriate and effective.
The top 4 die processes to check
The majority of quality and die protection problems occur in one of these three areas: material feed, material progression, and part- and slug-out detections. It’s important to monitor these areas carefully with various sensor technologies.
Material feed is perhaps the most critical area to monitor. You need to ensure the material is in the press, in the correct location, and feeding properly before cycling the press. The material could be feeding as a steel blank, or it could come off a roll of steel. Several errors can prevent the material from advancing to the next stage or out of the press: the feed can slip, the stock material feeding in can buckle, or scrap can fail to drop and block the strip from advancing, to name a few. Inductive proximity sensors, which detect iron-based metals at short distances, are commonly used to check material feeds.
Material progression is the next area to monitor. When using a progressive die, you will want to monitor the stripper to make sure it is functioning and the material is moving through the die properly. With a transfer die, you want to make sure the sheet of material is nesting correctly before cycling the press. Inductive proximity sensors are the most common sensor used in these applications, as well.
Here is an example of using two inductive proximity sensors to determine if the part is feeding properly or if there is a short or long feed. In this application, both proximity sensors must detect the edge of the metal. If the alignment is off by just a few millimeters, one sensor won’t detect the metal. You can use this information to prevent the press from cycling to the next step.
The third critical area that stamping departments typically monitor is part-out detection, which makes sure the finished part has come out of the stamping
area after the cycle is complete. Cycling the press and closing the tooling on a formed part that failed to eject can result in a number of undesirable events, like blowing out an entire die section or sending metal shards flying into the room. Optical sensors are typically used to check for part-out, though the type of photoelectric needed depends on the situation. If the part consistently comes out of the press at the same position every time, a through-beam photo-eye would be a good choice. If the part is falling at different angles and locations, you might choose a non-safety rated light grid.
The last event to monitor is slug ejection. A slug is a piece of scrap metal punched out of the material. For example, if you needed to punch some holes in metal, the slug would be the center part that is knocked out. You need to verify that the scrap has exited the press before the next cycle. Sometimes the scrap will stick together and fail to exit the die with each stroke. Failure to make sure the scrap material leaves the die could affect product quality or cause significant damage to the press, die, or both. Various sensor types can ensure proper scrap ejection and prevent crashes. The picture below shows a die with inductive ring sensors mounted in it to detect slugs as they fall out of the die.
Just like it is important to get regular checkups at the doctor, performing regular die-protection assessments can help you make continuous improvements that can increase production rates and reduce downtime. Material feed, material progression, part-out and slug-out detection are the first steps to optimize, but you can expand your assessments to include areas like auxiliary equipment. You can also consider smart factory solutions like intelligent sensors, condition monitoring, and diagnostics over networks to give you more data for preventative maintenance or more advanced error-proofing. The key to a successful program is to assemble the right team, start with the critical areas listed above, and learn about new technologies and concepts that are becoming available to help you plan ways to improve your stamping processes.
Industrial sensor technology revolutionized how part placement and object detection are performed in metal forming applications. Inductive proximity sensors came into standard use in the industry in the 1960s as the first non-contact sensor that could detect ferrous and nonferrous metals. Photoelectric sensors detect objects at greater distances. Used together in a stamping environment, these sensors can decrease the possibility of missing material or incorrect placement that can result in a die crash and expensive downtime.
In an industrial die press, inductive sensors are placed on the bottom and top of the dies to detect the sheet metal for stamping. The small sensing range of inductive sensors allows operators to confirm that the sheet metal is correctly in place and aligned to ensure that the stamping process creates as little scrap as possible.
In addition, installing barrel-style proximity sensors so that their sensing face is flush with the die structure will confirm the creation of the proper shape. The sensors in place at the correct angles within the die will trigger when the die presses the sheet metal into place. The information these sensors gather within the press effectively make the process visible to operators. Inductive sensors can also detect the direction of scrap material as it is being removed and the movement of finished products.
Photoelectric sensors in metal forming have two main functions. The first function is part presence, such as confirming that only a single sheet of metal loads into the die, also known as double-blank detection. Doing this requires placing a distance-sensing photoelectric sensor at the entry-way to the die. By measuring the distance to the sheet metal, the sensor can detect the accidental entry of two or more sheets in the press. Running the press with multiple metal sheets can damage the die form and the sensors installed in the die, resulting in expensive downtime while repairing or replacing the damaged parts.
The second typical function of photoelectric sensors verifies the movement of the part out of the press. A photoelectric light grid in place just outside the exit of the press can confirm the movement of material out before the next sheet enters into the press. Additionally, an optical window in place where parts move out will count the parts as they drop into a dunnage bin. These automated verification steps help ensure that stamping processes can move at high speeds with high accuracy.
These examples offer a brief overview of the sensors you mostly commonly find in use in a die press. The exact sensors are specific to the presses and the processes in use by different manufacturers, and the technology the stamping industry uses is constantly changing as it advances. So, as with all industrial automation, selecting the most suitable sensor comes down to the requirements of the individual application.
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.
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.
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.
Photoelectric sensors are a staple within many industries when it comes to automation thanks to their non-contact detection over longer ranges than many other sensing types. Also available in a variety of housing types and protection classes to meet the specific demands of an application, they offer manufacturers many different variants and models. The range of styles can make selecting the perfect photoelectric sensor for your specific application challenging. This post highlights the benefits of through-beam sensors and why fork sensors specifically, are often the ideal sensor for the job.
Through-beam sensors can detect anything, regardless of color, texture or reflectivity. This makes them highly efficient in any application where material or parts need to be detected during the process. They require an emitter and receiver. The emitter sends a light beam toward the receiver. When this light beam is blocked, the sensor will trigger. A common example of this is the sensor system on a garage door that detects obstructions and keeps the door from closing. (The software can also inverse this, so the sensor triggers when the light beam is not obstructed. Read more about these light-on/dark-on modes).
Traditional Through-Beams vs. Fork Sensors
Through-beam photoelectric sensors are simple technology that are non-contact, reliable and can operate over distances up to 100 meters, making them a go-to for many applications. But they aren’t without fault. Because the emitter and receiver are typically in separate housings, the two parts must line up perfectly to work. This alignment takes extra time during assembly and is prone to problems in the future if the emitter or receiver move, even slightly. Machine vibrations can cause a misalignment.
Fork sensors, also called C slot or U slot sensors, incorporate both the emitter and the receiver into a single body, providing the benefits of a through-beam sensor without the installation issues.
This allows for reduced installation and maintenance time of the sensor in several ways:
Mounting a single sensor instead of two
Half as many cables needed for networking
No touchy alignment needed when installing the sensor
No maintenance needed re-aligning the sensors in the future
Photoelectric fork sensors come with sensing windows widths up to 220 mm and a range of light sources to accommodate many application needs. Check them out the next time you are considering a photoelectric sensor and see if they’re the best choice for your application.