Choosing Sensors Suitable for Automation Welding Environments

Standard sensors and equipment won’t survive for very long in automated welding environments where high temperatures, flying sparks and weld spatter can quickly damage them. Here are some questions to consider when choosing the sensors that best fit such harsh conditions:

    • How close do you need to be to the part?
    • Can you use a photoelectric sensor from a distance?
    • What kind of heat are the sensors going to see?
    • Will the sensors be subject to weld large weld fields?
    • Will the sensors be subject to weld spatter?
    • Will the sensor interfere with the welding process?

Some solutions include using:

    • A PTFE weld spatter resistant and weld field immune sensor
    • A high-temperature sensor
    • A photoelectric diffuse sensor with a glass face for better resistance to weld spatter, while staying as far away as possible from the MIG welding application

Problem, solution

A recent customer was going through two sensors out of four every six hours. These sensors were subject to a lot of heat as they were part of the tooling that was holding the part being welded. So basically, it became a heat sink.

The best solution to this was to add water jackets to the tooling to help cool the area that was being welded. This is typically done in high-temperature welding applications or short cycle times that generate a lot of heat.

    • Solution 1 was to use a 160 Deg C temp sensor to see if the life span would last much longer.
    • Solution 2 was to use a plunger prob mount to get more distance from the weld area.

Using both solutions was the best solution. This increased the life to one week of running before it was necessary to replace the sensor. Still better than two every 6 hours.

Taking the above factors into consideration can make for a happy weld cell if time and care are put into the design of the system. It’s not always easy to get the right solution as some parts are so small or must be placed in tight areas. That’s why there are so many choices.

Following these guidelines will help significantly.

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.

The 5 Most Common Types of Fixed Industrial Robots

The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) defines five types of fixed industrial robots: Cartesian/Gantry, SCARA, Articulated, Parallel/Delta and Cylindrical (mobile robots are not included in the “fixed” robot category). These types are generally classified by their mechanical structure, which dictates the ways they can move.

Based on the current market situation and trends, we have modified this list by removing Cylindrical robots and adding Power & Force Limited Collaborative robots. Cylindrical robots have a small, declining share of the market and some industry analysts predict that they will be completely replaced by SCARA robots, which can cover similar applications at higher speed and performance. On the other hand, use of collaborative robots has grown rapidly since their first commercial sale by Universal Robots in 2008. This is why collaborative robots are on our list and cylindrical/spherical robots are not.

Therefore, our list of the top five industrial robot types includes:

    • Articulated
    • Cartesian/Gantry
    • Parallel/Delta
    • SCARA
    • Power & Force Limited Collaborative robots

These five common types of robots have emerged to address different applications, though there is now some overlap in the applications they serve. And range of industries where they are used is now very wide. The IFR’s 2021 report ranks electronics/electrical, automotive, metal & machinery, plastic and chemical products and food as the industries most commonly using fixed industrial robots. And the top applications identified in the report are material/parts handling and machine loading/unloading, welding, assembling, cleanrooms, dispensing/painting and processing/machining.

Articulated robots

Articulated robots most closely resemble a human arm and have multiple rotary joints–the most common versions have six axes. These can be large, powerful robots, capable of moving heavy loads precisely at moderate speeds. Smaller versions are available for precise movement of lighter loads. These robots have the largest market share (≈60%) and are growing between 5–10% per year.

Articulated robots are used across many industries and applications. Automotive has the biggest user base, but they are also used in other industries such as packaging, metalworking, plastics and electronics. Applications include material & parts handling (including machine loading & unloading, picking & placing and palletizing), assembling (ranging from small to large parts), welding, painting, and processing (machining, grinding, polishing).

SCARA robots

A SCARA robot is a “Selective Compliance Assembly Robot Arm,” also known as a “Selective Compliance Articulated Robot Arm.” They are compliant in the X-Y direction but rigid in the Z direction. These robots are fairly common, with around 15% market share and a 5-10% per year growth rate.

SCARA robots are most often applied in the Life Sciences, Semiconductor and Electronics industries. They are used in applications requiring high speed and high accuracy such as assembling, handling or picking & placing of lightweight parts, but also in 3D printing and dispensing.

Cartesian/Gantry robots

Cartesian robots, also known as gantry or linear robots, move along multiple linear axes. Since these axes are very rigid, they can precisely move heavy payloads, though this also means they require a lot of space. They have about 15% market share and a 5-10% per year growth rate.

Cartesian robots are often used in handling, loading/unloading, sorting & storing and picking & placing applications, but also in welding, assembling and machining. Industries using these robots include automotive, packaging, food & beverage, aerospace, heavy engineering and semiconductor.

Delta/Parallel robots

Delta robots (also known as parallel robots) are lightweight, high-speed robots, usually for fast handling of small and lightweight products or parts. They have a unique configuration with three or four lightweight arms arranged in parallelograms. These robots have 5% market share and a 3–5% growth rate.

They are often used in food or small part handling and/or packaging. Typical applications are assembling, picking & placing and packaging. Industries include food & beverage, cosmetics, packaging, electronics/ semiconductor, consumer goods, pharmaceutical and medical.

Power & Force Limiting Collaborative robots

We add the term “Power & Force Limiting” to our Collaborative robot category because the standards actually define four collaborative robot application modes, and we want to focus on this, the most well-known mode. Click here to read a blog on the different collaborative modes. Power & Force Limiting robots include models from Universal Robots, the FANUC CR green robots and the YuMi from ABB. Collaborative robots have become popular due to their ease of use, flexibility and “built-in” safety and ability to be used in close proximity to humans. They are most often an articulated robot with special features to limit power and force exerted by the axes to allow close, safe operation near humans or other machines. Larger, faster and stronger robots can also be used in collaborative applications with the addition of safety sensors and special programming.

Power & Force Limiting Collaborative robots have about 5% market share and sales are growing rapidly at 20%+ per year. They are a big success with small and mid-size enterprises, but also with more traditional robot users in a very broad range of industries including automotive and electronics. Typical applications include machine loading/unloading, assembling, handling, dispensing, picking & placing, palletizing, and welding.

Summary­

The robot market is one of the most rapidly growing segments of the industrial automation industry. The need for more automation and robots is driven by factors such as supply chain issues, changing workforce, cost pressures, digitalization and mass customization (highly flexible manufacturing). A broad range of robot types, capabilities and price points have emerged to address these factors and satisfy the needs of applications and industries ranging from automotive to food & beverage to life sciences.

Note: Market share and growth rate estimates in this blog are based on public data published by the International Federation of Robotics, Loup Ventures, NIST and Interact Analysis.

Protecting photoelectric and capacitive sensors

Supply chain and labor shortages are putting extra pressure on automation solutions to keep manufacturing lines running. Even though sensors are designed to work in harsh environments, one good knock can put a sensor out of alignment or even out of condition. Keep reading for tips on ways to protect photoelectric and capacitive sensors.

Mounting solutions for photoelectric sensors

Photoelectric sensors are sensitive to environmental factors that can cloud their view, like dust, debris, and splashing liquids, or damage them with physical impact. One of the best things to do from the beginning is to protect them by mounting them in locations that keep them out of harm’s way. Adjustable mounting solutions make it easier to set up sensors a little further away from the action. Mounts that can be adjusted on three axes like ball joints or rod-and-mount combinations should lock firmly into position so that vibration or weight will not cause sensors to move out of alignment. And mounting materials like stainless steel or plastic can be chosen to meet factors like temperature, accessibility, susceptibility to impact, and contact with other materials.

When using retroreflective sensors, reflectors and reflective foils need similar attention. Consider whether the application involves heat or chemicals that might contact reflectors. Reflectors come in versions, especially for use with red, white, infrared, and laser lights, or especially for polarized or non-polarized light. And there are mounting solutions for reflectors as well.

Considering the material and design of capacitive sensors

Capacitive sensors must also be protected based on their working environment, the material they detect, and where they are installed. Particularly, is the sensor in contact with the material it is sensing or not?

If there is contact, pay special attention to the sensor’s material and design. Foods, beverages, chemicals, viscous substances, powders, or bulk materials can degrade a sensor constructed of the wrong material. And to switch perspectives, a sensor can affect the quality of the material it contacts, like changing the taste of a food product. If resistance to chemicals is needed, housings made of stainless steel, PTFE, and PEEK are available.

While the sensor’s material is important to its functionality, the physical design of the sensor is also important. A working environment can involve washdown processes or hygienic requirements. If that is the case, the sensor’s design should allow water and cleaning agents to easily run off, while hygienic requirements demand that the sensor not have gaps or crevices where material may accumulate and harbor bacteria. Consider capacitive sensors that hold FDA, Ecolab, and CIP certifications to work safely in these conditions.

Non-contact capacitive sensors can have their own special set of requirements. They can detect material through the walls of a tank, depending on the tank wall’s material type and thickness. Plastic walls and non-metallic packaging present a smaller challenge. Different housing styles – flat cylindrical, discs, and block styles – have different sensing capabilities.

Newer capacitive technology is designed as an adhesive tape to measure the material inside a tank or vessel continuously. Available with stainless steel, plastic, or PTFF housing, it works particularly well when there is little space available to detect through a plastic or glass wall of 8mm or less. When installing the tape, the user can cut it with scissors to adjust the length.

Whatever the setting, environmental factors and installation factors can affect the functionality of photoelectric and capacitive sensors, sometimes bringing them to an untimely end. Details like mounting systems and sensor materials may not be the first requirements you look for, but they are important features that can extend the life of your sensors.

 

Weld Immune vs. Weld Field Immune: What’s the difference? 

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
    • High-temperature resistance
    • 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.

Click here for more on choosing the right sensor for your welding application.