Back to the Basics – Object Detection

In the last post about the Basics of Automation, we discussed how humans act as a paradigm for automation. Now, let’s take a closer look at how objects can be detected, collected and positioned with the help of sensors.

Sensors can detect various materials such as metals, non-metals, solids and liquids, all completely without contact. You can use magnetic fields, light and sound to do this. The type of material you are trying to detect will determine the type of sensor technology that you will use.

Object Detection 1

Types of Sensors

  • Inductive sensors for detecting any metallic object at close range
  • Capacitive sensors for detecting the presence of level of almost any material and liquid at close range
  • Photoelectric sensors such as diffuse, retro-reflective or through-beam detect virtually any object over greater distances
  • Ultrasonic sensors for detecting virtually any object over greater distances

Different Sensors for Different Applications

The different types of sensors used will depend on the type of application. For example, you will use different sensors for metal detection, non-metal detection, magnet detection, and level detection.

Detecting Metals

If a workpiece or similar metallic objects Object Detection 2should be detected, then an inductive sensor is the best solution. Inductive sensors easily detect workpiece carriers at close range. If a workpiece is missing it will be reliably detected. Photoelectric sensors detect small objects, for example, steel springs as they are brought in for processing. Thus ensures a correct installation and assists in process continuity. These sensors also stand out with their long ranges.

Detecting Non-Metals

If you are trying to detect non-metal objects, for example, the height of paper stacks, Object Detection 3then capacitive sensors are the right choice. They will ensure that the printing process runs smoothly and they prevent transport backups. If you are checking the presence of photovoltaic cells or similar objects as they are brought in for processing, then photoelectic sensors would be the correct choice for the application.

Detecting Magnets

Object Detection 4

To make sure that blister packs are exactly positioned in boxes or that improperly packaged matches are sorted out, a magnetic field sensor is needed which is integrated into the slot. It detects the opening condition of a gripper, or the position of a pneumatic ejector.


Level Detection

What if you need to detect the level of granulate in containers? Then the solution is to use capacitive sensors. To accomplish this, two sensors are attached in the containers, offset from each other. A signal is generated when the minimum or maximum level is exceeded. This prevents over-filling or the level falling below a set amount. However, if you would like to detect the precise fill height of a tank without contact, then the solution would be to use an ultrasonic sensor.

Stay tuned for future posts that will cover the essentials of automation. To learn more about the Basics of Automation in the meantime, visit

The Evolving Technology of Capacitive Sensors

In my last blog post, Sensing Types of Capacitive Sensors, I discussed the basic types of capacitive sensors; flush versions for object detection and non-flush for level detection of liquids or bulk materials.  In this blog post, I would like to discuss how the technology for capacitive sensors has changed over the past few years.

The basic technology of most capacitive sensors on the market was discussed in the blog post “What is a Capacitive Sensor”.  The sensors determine the presence of an object based on the dielectric constant of the object being detected.  If you are trying to detect a hidden object, then the hidden object must have a higher dielectric constant than what you are trying to “see through”.

Conductive targets present an interesting challenge to capacitive sensors as these targets have a greater capacitance and a targets dielectric constant is immaterial.  Conductive targets include metal, water, blood, acids, bases, and salt water.  Any capacitive sensor will detect the presence of these targets. However, the challenge is for the sensor to turn off once the conductive material is no longer present.  This is especially true when dealing with acids or liquids, such as blood, that adheres to the container wall as the level drops below the sensor face.

Today, enhanced sensing technology helps the sensors effectively distinguish between true liquid levels and possible interference caused by condensation, material build-up, or foaming fluids.  While ignoring these interferences, the sensors would still detect the relative change in capacitance caused by the target object, but use additional factors to evaluate the validity of the measurement taken before changing state.

These sensors are fundamentally insensitive to any non-conductive material like plastic or glass, which allows them to be utilized in level applications.  The only limitation of enhanced capacitive sensors is they require electrically conductive fluid materials with a dipole characteristic, such as water, to operate properly.

Enhanced or hybrid technology capacitive sensors work with a high-frequency oscillator whose amplitude is directly correlated with the capacitance change between the two independently acting sensing electrodes.  Each electrode independently tries to force itself into a balanced state.  That is the reason why the sensor independently measures  the capacitance of the container wall without ground reference and the capacitance of the conductivity of the liquid with ground reference (contrary to standard capacitive sensors).


Up to this point, capacitive sensors have only been able to provide a discrete output, or if used in level applications for a point level indication.  Another innovative change to capacitive sensor technology is the ability to use a remote amplifier.  Not only does this configuration allow for capacitive sensors to be smaller, for instance 4mm in diameter, since the electronics are remote, they can provide additional functionality.

The remote sensor heads are available in a number of configurations including versions image2that can withstand temperature ranges of -180°C up to 250°C.  The amplifiers can now provide the ability to not only have discrete outputs but communicate over an IO-Link network or provide an analog output.  Now imagine the ability to have an adhesive strip sensor that can provide an analog output based on a non-metallic tanks level.

For additional information on the industry’s leading portfolio of capacitive products visit

Level Detection Basics – Part 2

In the first blog on level detection we discussed containers and single point and continuous level sensing.  In this edition we will discuss invasive and non-invasive sensing methods and which sensing technologies apply to each version.  Keep in mind that when we are talking about level detection the media can be a liquid, semi-solid or solid with each presenting their own challenges.

tankInvasive or direct level sensing involves the sensing device being in direct contact to the media being sensed.  This means that the container walls or any piping must be violated leading to issue number one – leakage.  In some industries such as semiconductor and medical the sensing device cannot contact the media due to the possibility of contamination.

level_btl-sf-wThe direct mounting method could simplify sensor selection and setup since the sensor only has to sense the medium or target material properties.  Nonetheless, this approach imposes certain drawbacks, such as costs for mounting and sealing the sensor as well as the need to consider the material compatibility between the sensor and the medium.  Corrosive acids, for example, might require a more expensive exotic housing material.level_bsp_w

Invasive sensing technologies that would solve level sensing applications include capacitive, linear transducers, hydrostatic with pressure sensors.

In many cases the preferred approach is indirectly or non-invasively mounting the sensor on the outside of the container.  This sensing method requires the sensor to “see” through the container walls or by looking down at the media from above the container through an opening in the top of the container.  The advantages for this approach are easier mounting, lower cost and easier to field retro-fit.  The container wall does not have to be penetrated, which leaves the level sensor flexible and interchangeable in the application.  Avoiding direct contact with the target material also reduces the chances of product contamination, leaks, and other sources of risk to personnel and the environment.

level_bglIn some cases a sight glass is used which is mounted in the wall of the tank and as the liquid media rises it flows into the sight glass.  When using a sight glass a fork style photoelectric sensor can be used or a capacitive sensor can be strapped to the sight glass.

The media also has relevance in the sensor selection process.  Medical and semiconductor applications involve mostly water-based reagents, process fluids, acids, as well as different bodily fluids.  Fortunately, high conductivity levels and therefore high relative dielectric constants are common characteristics among all these liquids.  This is why the primary advantages of capacitive sensors lie in non-invasive liquid level detection, namely by creating a large measurement delta between the low dielectric container and the target material with high dielectric properties.  At the same time, highly conductivity liquids could impose a threat to the application.  This is because smaller physical amounts of material have a larger impact on the capacitive sensor with increasing conductivity values, increasing the risk of false triggering on foam or adherence to the inside or outside wall.

Non-invasive or indirect level sensing technologies include photoelectrics, capacitive, linear transducers with a sight glass and ultrasonics.

For more information visit

Level Detection Basics – Where to begin?

Initially I started to write this blog to compare photoelectric sensors to ultrasonic sensors for level detection. This came to mind after traveling around and visiting customers that had some very interesting applications. However, as I started to shed some light on this with photoelectrics, sorry for the pun but it was intended, I thought it might be better to begin with some application questions and considerations so that we have a better understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of solutions that are available. That being said I guess we will have to wait to hear about ultrasonic sensors until later…get it, another pun. Sorry.

Level detection can present a wide variety of challenges some easier to overcome than others. Some of the questions to consider include the following with some explanation for each:

  • What is the material of the container or vessel?
    • Metallic containers will typically require the sensor to look down to see the media. This application may be able to be solved with photoelectrics, ultrasonics, and linear transducers or capacitive (mounted in a tube and lowered into the media.
    • SmartLevelNon-metallic containers may provide the ability for the sensors look down to see the media with the same technologies mentioned above or by sensing through the walls of the container. Capacitive sensors can sense through the walls of a container up to 4mm thick with standard technology or up to 10mm thick using a hybrid capacitive technology offered by Balluff when detecting water based conductive materials. If the container is clear or translucent we have photoelectric sensors that can look through the side walls to detect the media. You can get more information in our white paper, SMARTLEVEL Technology Accurate point level detection.
  • What type of sensing is required? The short answer to this is level right? However, there are basically two different types of level detection. For more information on this refer to the Balluff Basics on Level Sensing – Discrete vs. Continuous.
    • Single point level or point level sensing. This is typically accomplished with a single sensor that allows for a discrete or an on-off signal when the level actuates the sensor. The sensor is mounted at the specific level to be monitored, for instance low-low, low, half full (the optimistic view), high, or high-high. These sensors are typically lower cost and easier to implement or integrate into the level controls.
    • Example of in-tank continuous level sensor
      Example of in-tank continuous level sensor

      Continuous or dynamic level detection. These sensors provide an analog or continuous output based on the level of the media. This level detection is used primarily in applications that require precise level or precision dispensing. The output signals are usually a voltage 0-10V or current output 4-20mA.  These sensors are typically higher cost and require more work in integrating them into system controls.  That being said, they also offer several advantages such as the ability to program in unlimited point levels and in the case of the current output the ability to determine if the sensor is malfunctioning or the wire is broken.

Because of the amount of information on level detection this will be the first in a series on this topic. In my next blog I will discuss invasive vs non-invasive mounting and some other topics. For more information visit

Liquid Level Sensing: Detect or Monitor?

Pages upon pages of information could be devoted to exploring the various products and technologies used for liquid level sensing and monitoring.  But we’re not going to do that in this article.  Instead, as a starting point, we’re going to provide a brief overview of the concepts of discrete (or point) level detection and continuous position sensing.

 Discrete (or Point) Level Detection

Example of discrete sensors used to detect tank level
Example of discrete sensors used to detect tank level

In many applications, the level in a tank or vessel doesn’t need to be absolutely known.  Instead, we just need to be able to determine if the level inside the tank is here or there.  Is it nearly full, or is it nearly empty?  When it’s nearly full, STOP the pump that pumps more liquid into the tank.  When it’s nearly empty, START the pump that pumps liquid into the tank.

This is discrete, or point, level detection.  Products and technologies used for point level detection are varied and diverse, but typical technologies include, capacitive, optical, and magnetic sensors.  These sensors could live inside the tank outside the tank.  Each of these technologies has its own strengths and weaknesses, depending on the specific application requirements.  Again, that’s a topic for another day.

In practice, there may be more than just two (empty and full) detection points.  Additional point detection sensors could be used, for example, to detect ¼ full, ½ full, ¾ full, etc.  But at some point, adding more detection points stops making sense.  This is where continuous level sensing comes into play.

Continuous Level Sensing

Example of in-tank continuous level sensor
Example of in-tank continuous level sensor

If more precise information about level in the tank is needed, sensors that provide precise, continuous feedback – from empty to full, and everywhere in between – can be used.  This is continuous level sensing.

In some cases, not only does the level need to be known continuously, but it needs to be known with extremely high precision, as is the case with many dispensing applications.  In these applications, the changing level in the tank corresponds to the amount of liquid pumped out of the tank, which needs to be precisely measured.

Again, various technologies and form factors are employed for continuous level sensing applications.  Commonly-used continuous position sensing technologies include ultrasonic, sonic, and magnetostrictive.  The correct technology is the one that satisfies the application requirements, including form factor, whether it can be inside the tank, and what level of precision is needed.

At the end of the day, every application is different, but there is most likely a sensor that’s up for the task.

Are all capacitive sensors for liquid level detection created equal?

When standard capacitive sensors are used for liquid level detection in an indirect level detection application, the sensor must be adjusted to the point where it ignores the container wall but reliably detects the capacitance change caused by the changing liquid level. Typically, a standard capacitive sensor can be adjusted to disregard a wall thickness of approximately 4mm. In addition, the dielectric strength of the liquid must be higher than the container wall for reliable level detection.

Capacitive sensors detect any changes in their electrostatic sensing field. This includes not only the liquid itself, but also application-induced influences such as condensation, foaming, temporary or permanent material build-up. High viscosity fluids can cause extensive delays in the accurate point-level detection or cause complete failure due to the inability of a standard capacitive sensor to compensate for material adhering to the container walls.

A perfect capacitive sensor for non-invasive level detection applications would not require any user adjustment after the initial setup process. It would detect the true liquid level of any type of water-based liquid through any non-metallic type of tank wall while automatically compensating for material build-up, condensation, and foam. While ignoring these interferences, the sensors would still detect the relative change in capacitance caused by the liquid but use additional factors to evaluate the validity of the measurement taken before changing state.

These sensors would be fundamentally insensitive to any non-conductive material like plastic or glass up to 10mm thick, which would allow them to be utilized in non-invasive level applications. The enhanced capacitive sensors only limitation is it would require electrically conductive fluid materials with a dipole characteristic such as water to operate properly. This is a great concept but does a sensor like this exist today? The short answer is yes, and it is called SMARTLEVEL!

Continue reading “Are all capacitive sensors for liquid level detection created equal?”

Level Detection with Ultrasonic Sensors

Liquid measurement can be a demanding application therefore selecting the most effective sensor technology is imperative. Ultrasonic sensors are the ideal solution for distance measurement or position detection of granules, fluids and powders. They measure fill levels, heights and sag without making contact as well as count and monitor the presence of objects. They are extremely versatile, operate independently of color and surface finish, and are not affected by transparent objects that generate strong reflections. And because they are not affected by dust, dirt and steam, they are the ideal choice for critical applications.

Ultrasonic Sensors operate with propagation of sound waves providing a reliable detection source for level detection applications where liquid measurement monitoring is necessary. They will enhance the flexibility of the application with additional advantages of being a non-contact sensor so there are no mechanical floats or arms that can retain residual liquid build up. This residual material can cause machine application downtime as interruption of production is needed to maintain and clean the mechanical monitoring system. Because the distance to the object is determined via a sound transit time, ultrasonic sensors have excellent background suppression. With their transit time measurement, ultrasonic sensors can record the measured value with highly precise resolution (some sensors to even 0.025 mm). Ultrasonic Sensors can monitor
and detect nearly any liquid.

Level Detection with Ultrasonic Sensors2Level Detection with Ultrasonic SensorsAn ultrasonic sensor is not affected by the color, transparency or glossiness of a surface. They can reliably detect bulk materials, liquids and material surfaces. Good reflective materials include:

  • „„ Water
  • „„ Paint/varnish
  • Wood
  • Metal
  • Plastic
  • Stone/concrete
  • Glass
  • Hard foam rubber

Additional advantages ultrasonic sensors provide when monitoring liquid is their ability to have two independent outputs programmed into one sensor. This is a great way to monitor upper and lower liquid levels with one sensor. This sensor feature allows one independent output setting to indicate a minimum level and the second output to indicate a maximum level concurrently providing constant feedback along with a voltage or current output.