Where Discrete Position Sensing Belongs in the Manufacturing Process

Unlike continuous position sensors which provide near real-time position feedback throughout the stroke of the cylinder, discrete position sensors are equipped with a switching functionality at one or more designated positions along the cylinder’s stroke. Typically, these positions are set to detect fully retracted and extended positions but one can also be used to detect mid-stroke position.

To determine which is right for you requires a review of your application and a determination of how precisely the movement of the cylinder needs to be controlled. Some hydraulic cylinder applications require no position sensing at all. These applications simply use the cylinder to move a load, and position control is either done manually or by some other external switch or stop. Moving up a step, many applications require only that the beginning and end of the cylinder stroke be detected so that the cylinder can be commanded to reverse direction. These applications are ideal for discrete position sensing.

Several types of sensors are used for discrete position detection, but one of the most common is high-pressure inductive proximity sensors, which are installed into the end caps of the cylinder. The sensors detect the piston as it reaches the end of the cylinder stroke in either direction.

These sensors are designed to withstand the full pressure of the hydraulic system. Inductive sensors are extremely reliable because they operate without any form of mechanical contact and are completely unaffected by changes in oil temperature or viscosity.

High-pressure inductive sensors installed in hydraulic cylinder

Discrete position sensors are used in applications such as hydraulic clamps, detection of open/closed position in welding operations, and in hydraulic compactors and balers for compacting materials until end of cylinder stroke is reached, at which point the cylinder retracts.

Additionally, it is quite common for pneumatically-actuated clamps and grippers to use discrete sensors to indicate fully extended and fully retracted positions, and in many cases, in-between positions as well. There are even applications where multiple discrete sensors are used in grippers for gauging and sizing work pieces.

By far, the most common method of providing discrete position in an air cylinder is to use externally-mounted switches that react to a magnet installed around the circumference of the piston. These magnetically-actuated switches can sense the field of a magnet embedded in the cylinder’s piston through the aluminum body of the cylinder.

magnetically actuated
Magnetically actuated sensor installed into cylinder C-slot

There are several different operating principles used in these magnetically-actuated switches, ranging from simple, low-cost reed switches and Hall-effect switches to significantly more reliable sensors that use magnetoresistive technology. One of the big advantages of magnetoresistive sensors is that they will reliably detect both radial and axial magnetic fields, making them ideal replacements for reed or Hall-effect switches.

Check out our previous blog to learn more about continuous position sensors.

Quick field replacement for linear sensor electronics

Micropulse Transducers BTL 7 Rod-style with Rapid Replacement Module
Micropulse Transducers BTL 7
Rod-style with Rapid Replacement Module

When maintenance technicians replace linear position sensors (also known as probes or wands) from hydraulic cylinders, it can leave a terrible mess, waste hydraulic oils, and expose the individual to harmful hot fluids.  Also, the change out process can expose the hydraulic system to unwanted contaminants. After the sensor replacement has been completed, there can also be more work yet to do during the outage such as replacing fluids and air-bleeding cylinders.

Hydraulic linear position sensors with field-replaceable electronics/sensing elements eliminate these concerns.  Such sensors, so-called Rapid Replacement Module (RRM) sensors, allow the “guts” of the sensor to be replaced, while the stainless steel pressure tube remains in the cylinder.  The hydraulic seal is never compromised.  That means that during the replacement process there is no danger of oil spillage and no need for environmental containment procedures. There is also no need to bleed air from the hydraulic system and no danger of dirt or wood debris entering the open hydraulic port. Finally, there is no danger of repair personnel getting burned by hot oil.

The RRM is an option for Balluff’s BTL7 Z/B Rod Series used in applications for the lumber industry, plastic injection and blow molding, tire and rubber manufacturing, stamping presses, die casting, and all types of automated machinery where a continuous, absolute position signal is required.  Applications in industries such as Oil & Gas and Process Control are especially critical when it comes to downtime.  For these applications, this Rapid Replacement Module capability is especially advantageous.

You can learn more about linear position sensors with hazardous area approvals, by visting http://www.balluff.com/local/us/products/sensors/magnetostrictive-linear-position-sensors/

The video below shows a demonstration of the Rapid Replacement Module in action.


5 Tips on Making End-of-Arm Tooling Smarter

Example of a Flexible EOA Tool with 8 sensors connected with an Inductive Coupling System.

Over the years I’ve interviewed many customers regarding End-Of-Arm (EOA) tooling. Most of the improvements revolve around making the EOA tooling smarter. Smarter tools mean more reliability, faster change out and more in-tool error proofing.

#5: Go Analog…in flexible manufacturing environments, discrete information just does not provide an adequate solution. Analog sensors can change set points based on the product currently being manufactured.

#4: Lose the weight…look at the connectors and cables. M8 and M5 connectorized sensors and cables are readily available. Use field installable connectors to help keep cable runs as short as possible. We see too many long cables simply bundled up.

#3: Go Small…use miniature, precision sensors that do not require separate amplifiers. These miniature sensors not only cut down on size but also have increased precision. With these sensors, you’ll know if a part is not completely seated in the gripper.

#2: Monitor those pneumatic cylinders…monitoring air pressure in one way, but as speeds increase and size is reduced, you really need to know cylinder end of travel position. The best technology for EOA tooling is magnetoresistive such as Balluff’s BMF line. Avoid hall-effects and definitely avoid reed switches. Also, consider dual sensor styles such as Balluff’s V-Twin line.

#1: Go with Couplers…with interchangeable tooling, sensors should be connected with a solid-state, inductive coupling system such as Balluff’s Inductive Coupler (BIC). Avoid the use of pin-based connector systems for low power sensors. They create reliability problems over time.

Thinking Outside the Cylinder

In a previous entry, I discussed how linear position sensors are used with hydraulic cylinders to provide continuous position feedback.  While this is certainly one of the most common ways linear position sensors are used, there are many applications for linear position sensors that either don’t involve a hydraulic cylinder at all, or that involve a cylinder only indirectly.

Linear position sensors for external use (not installed into a hydraulic cylinder) offer some very tangible benefits when compared to in-cylinder sensors.  Let’s explore a few of those benefits:

Continue reading “Thinking Outside the Cylinder”

What is the hysteresis of your magnetic field sensor?


I received a call the other day from a customer who wanted to use a magnetic field sensor on a cylinder, and evidently was requiring very precise results. He asked, “what is the hysteresis of your sensors? I notice that it is listed in your catalog as a percentage and I need to know the exact value in millimeters.” My response was, “well it depends”,  upon which he was not overly pleased. I then continued to explain my answer which leads me to the contents of this posting.

Continue reading “What is the hysteresis of your magnetic field sensor?”