IO-Link: End to Analog Sensors

With most sensors now coming out with an IO-Link output, could this mean the end of using traditional analog sensors? IO-Link is the first IO technology standard (IEC 61131-9) for communications between sensors and actuators on the lower component level.

Analog sensors

A typical analog sensor detects an external parameter, such as pressure, sound or temperature, and provides an analog voltage or current output that is proportional to its measurement. The output values are then sent out of the measuring sensor to an analog card, which reads in the samples of the measurements and converts them to a digital binary representation which a PLC/controller can use. At both ends of the conversion, on the sensor side and the analog card side, however, the quality of the transmitted value can be affected. Unfortunately, noise and electrical interferences can affect the analog signals coming out of the sensor, degrading it over the long cable run. The longer the cable, the more prone to interference on the signal. Therefore, it’s always recommended to use shielded cables between the output of the analog sensor to the analog card for the conversion. The cable must be properly shielded and grounded, so no ground loops get induced.

Also, keep in mind the resolution on the analog card. The resolution is the number of bits the card uses to digitalize the analog samples it’s getting from the sensor. There are different analog cards that provide 10-, 12-, 14-, and 16-bit value representations of the analog signal. The more digital bits represented, the more precise the measurement value.

IO-Link sensor—less interference, less expensive and more diagnostic data

With IO-Link as the sensor output, the digital conversion happens at the sensor level, before transmission. The measured signal gets fed into the onboard IO-Link chipset on the sensor where it is converted to a digital output. The digital output signal is then sent via IO-Link directly to a gateway, with an IO-Link master chipset ready to receive the data. This is done using a standard, unshielded sensor cable, which is less expensive than equivalent shielded cables. And, now the resolution of the sensor is no longer dependent on the analog card. Since the conversion to digital happens on the sensor itself, the actual engineering units of the measured value is sent directly to the IO-Link master chipset of the gateway where it can be read directly from the PLC/controller.

Plus, any parameters and diagnostics information from the sensor can also be sent along that same IO-Link signal.

So, while analog sensors will never completely disappear on older networks, IO-Link provides good reasons for their use in newer networks and machines.

To learn about the variety of IO-Link measurement sensors available, read the Automation Insights post about ways measurement sensors solve common application challenges. For more information about IO-Link and measurement sensors, visit

How Do I Make My Analog Sensor Less Complex?

So, you have a (or many) analog sensor in your application or system and they could be 4-20mA signal or 0-10V or even -10- +10V signal strength. You probably know that installing these specialty sensors takes some effort. You need shielded cables for signal transmission, the sensor probably has some digital interface for set-point settings or configuration. In all, there are probably 6-8 at minimum terminations for this single sensor. Furthermore, these expensive cables need to be routed properly to ensure minimal electromagnetic interference (EMI) on the wire. To make matter more complex, when its time to diagnose problem with the sensor, it is always on the back of your mind that may be the cable is catching some interference and giving improper readings or errors.

shieldedCablesOn the other hand, the cost side also is little tricky. You have the state of the art sensor that requires expensive shielded cable and the expensive analog input card (which generally has 4 channels- even if you use single channel), plus some digital I/O to get this single sensor to communicate to your PLC/PAC or controller. You are absolutely right, that is why people are demanding to have this sensor directly on their network so that it eliminates all the expensive cables and cards and talks directly to the controller on express way– so to speak.

Recently, there has been an explosion of industrial communication networks and fieldbuses. To name a few: EtherNet/IP, DeviceNet, PROFINET, PROFIBUS, CC-Link, CC-Link IE, Powerlink, Sercos, and the list goes on. As a machine builder, you want to be open to any network of customer’s choice. So, if that is the case, having network node on the sensor itself would make that sensor more bulky and expensive than before — but not only that, now the manufacturers have to develop sensor connectivity to ALL the networks and maintain separate inventory of each type. As a machine builder, it does put lot more stress on you as well to maintain different Bills of Materials (BOMs) for different projects – most likely – different sourcing channels and so on.

NetworksSo far what we discussed are two extremes; the way of the past with shielded cables and analog cards, and a wishful future where all devices are on the network. There is a middle ground that bridges yesterday’s method and the wishful future without adding any burden on manufacturers of the sensors or even the machine builders. The solution is IO-Link. IO-Link is the first standard (IEC 61131-9) sensor actuator communication technology. There are over 100+ members in the consortium that produce wide variety of sensors that can communicate over IO-Link.

If a sensor has IO-Link communication, denoted by  io-linklogo, then you can connect a standard M12 prox cable — let me stress– UNSHIELDED, to connect the sensor to the IO-Link port on the IO-Link master device. That’s it! No need to terminate connections, or buy expensive hardware. The IO-Link master device typically has 4, 8 or 16 ports to connect various IO-Link devices including I/O hubs, RFID, Valve connectors and more. (see picture below)


All signal communication and configuration now occurs on standard 3 conductor cable that you are currently using for your discrete sensors. The IO-Link master in turn acts as a gateway to the network. So, the IO-Link master sits on the network or fieldbus and collects all the sensors or discrete I/O information from devices and sends it to the controller or the PLC of the customer choice.

When your customer demands a different network or the fieldbus, the only thing that changes in your question is the master that talks to a different protocol.

In my next blog we will discuss how you can eliminate shielded cables and expensive analog cards for your existing analog sensor. Let me give you a hint– again the solution is with IO-Link.

You can learn more about IO-Link at

For Industrial Controls, What’s Next After Analog?

Analog signals have been part of industrial control systems for a very long time.  The two most common signals are 0-10V (“voltage”) and 4-20mA (“current”), although there are a wide variety of other voltage and current protocols.  These signals are called “analog” because they vary continuously and have theoretically infinite resolution (although practical resolution is limited by the level of residual electrical noise in the circuit).

Measurement sensors typically provide analog output signals, because these electronic circuits are well-understood and the designs are relatively economical to produce.  But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to design and build a good-quality analog sensor: in fact it is very difficult to engineer an analog signal that is highly linear over its measuring range, has low noise (for high-resolution), is thermally stable, (doesn’t drift as temperature changes), and is repeatable from sample to sample.  It takes a lot of careful engineering, testing, and tweaking to deliver a good analog sensor to the market.

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Cable Length for Analog Sensors

A question came in recently concerning the maximum recommended cable length for analog sensors.  Even as digital interfaces gain popularity, sensors with analog interfaces (0-10V, 4-20 mA, etc.) still represent the overwhelming majority of continuous position sensors used in industrial applications.

The question about maximum cable length for analog sensors comes up pretty frequently.  Generally speaking, the issue is that electrical conductors, even good ones, have some resistance to the flow of current (signals).  If the resistance of the conductor (the cable) gets high enough, the sensor’s signal can be degraded to the point where accuracy suffers, or even to the point where it becomes unusable.  Unfortunately, there is no hard and fast answer to the question.  Variables such as wire gauge, whether or not the cable is shielded, where and how the cable is routed, what other types of devices are nearby, and other factors come into play, and need to be considered.  A discussion about all of these variables could fill a book, but we can make some general recommendations:

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E = IR: It’s Not Just a Good Idea, it’s the Law

I recently had a conversation with a customer that resulted in one of those forehead-slapping “duh” moments for me, and I thought it might be worth passing along. Here’s the story:

The customer had an application that required an analog linear feedback sensor that provided an output of 1 volt to 5 volts over the linear stroke range. Now, a 1-5V output is not very common, and the particular sensor he was interested in was only available with either a 0-10V or a 4-20 mA output. What to do? Perhaps the answer should have been obvious to me, but it was the customer who provided the solution this time: “couldn’t I use a 4-20 mA output and 250 ohm resistor to get my 1-5V output?” Why, yes….yes you could (smack…..duh!). And I know it will work, because we have the law on our side. Ohm’s Law, that is: E = IR, or voltage equals current x resistance.

Let’s check it:

4 (mA) x 250 (ohms) = 1 (volt)

20 (mA) x 250 (ohms) = 5 (volts)

So there you have it. Take a very common 4-20 mA output and drop it across a 250 ohm resistor and, lo and behold, you have your less common 1-5V signal. And, if you do this conversion right at the input to the controller, you get the added benefit of increased noise immunity of the 4-20 mA signal.

And, yes, I’m sure I knew of this little trick at one time. Maybe the part of my brain where this information was stored got overwritten by the names of the contestants on The Amazing Race or by the rollout plans for my million dollar consumer product idea: Dehydrated Water (just add water). But let’s keep that just between us, ok?

To learn more about analog feedback sensors visit

Analog Inductive Sensors

In his post, When Do You Specify An Inductive Sensor?, Shawn Day (Market Manager, Inductive Sensors) discusses selection criteria and application for inductive proximity sensors.  In that article, Shawn focuses on what are sometimes referred to as discrete sensors – sensors that detect the presence of a metal target, and then turn on (or turn off).  As Shawn points out, there are many, many applications for this type of discrete sensing.

But what if just indicating the presence or absence of a part is not enough?  What if you need to know not only if a part is in a particular position or not, but rather you need to know exactly where the part is at any given point along its entire range of travel?  That’s where analog, or continuous, inductive position sensors come into play.

Analog inductive sensors employ basically the same technology as discrete proximity sensors.  That is, they use inductive coils to generate eddy currents that respond to a metal target.  But, unlike discrete sensors, analog inductive sensors provide a continuously variable output, not just an on/off change of state.

Tubular Analog Inductive Sensors

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