Shedding Light on Different Types of Photoelectric Sensors

Photoelectric sensors have been around for more than 50 years and are used in everyday things – from garage door openers to highly automated assembly lines that produce the food we eat and the cars we drive.

The correct use of photoelectric sensors in a manufacturing process is important to ensure machines can perform their required actions. Over the years they have evolved into many different forms.

But, how do you know which is the right sensor for your application?  Let’s take a quick look at the different types and why you would choose one over another for your needs.

Diffuse sensors

    • Ideal for detecting contrast differences, depending on the surface, color, and material
    • Detects in Light-On or Dark-On mode, depending on the target
    • Economical and easy to mount and align, thanks to visible light beams
    • Shorter ranges as compared to retroreflective and through-beam sensors
    • IR (Infrared) light beams available for better detection in harsh environments
    • Laser light versions are available for more precise detection when needed
    • Mounting includes only one electrical device

Diffuse sensor with background suppression

    • Reliable object detection with various operating ranges, and independent of surface, color, and material
    • Detects objects against very similar backgrounds – even if they are very dark against a bright background
    • Almost constant scanning range even with different reflectance
    • Only one electrical device without reflectors or separate receivers
    • Good option if you cannot use a through-beam or retroreflective sensor
    • With red light or the laser red light that is ideally suited for detecting small parts

Retroreflective sensors

    • Simple alignment thanks to generous mounting tolerances
    • Large reflectors for longer ranges
    • Reliable detection, regardless of surface, color, and material
    • Polarized light filters are available to assist with detecting shiny objects
    • Mounting includes only one electrical device, plus a reflector
    • Most repeatable sensor for clear object detection; light passes through clear target 2X’s giving a greater change in light received by the sensor

Through-beam sensors

    • Ideal for positioning tasks, thanks to excellent reproducibility
    • Most reliable detection method for objects, especially on conveyor applications
    • Extremely resistant to contamination and suitable for harsh environments
    • Ideally suited for large operating ranges
    • Transmitter and receiver in separate housings

Fork sensors

    • Different light types (red light, infrared, laser)
    • Robust metal housing
    • Simple alignment to the object
    • High optical resolution and reproducibility
    • Fork widths in different sizes with standardized mounting holes
    • Identical mechanical and optical axes
    • The transmitter and receiver are firmly aligned to each other, yielding high process reliability

The next time you need to choose a photoelectric sensor for your manufacturing process, consider these features of each type to ensure the sensor is performing optimally in your application.

Detecting Small Bubbles? Consider These Factors First

BubbleDetectionBubble or air-in-line detection is a common lab automation application. In these types of applications it’s important to know whether or not liquid is flowing through a line to ensure safe and proper function in liquid-handling processes.  As these processes utilize smaller and smaller volumes of liquid — which provides cost and time saving benefits — it becomes more and more difficult to detect the potential air pockets forming inside the line. The most common approach in detecting these minute air pockets is a through-beam, photoelectric bubble sensor.

Photoelectric bubble sensors provide non-invasive detection of fluids and air pockets residing inside a tube. They have fixed opening dimensions for standard tube sizes allowing the selected tube to sit in perfect position between the sensor’s optical components. When the sensor’s light beam is blocked by fluid (or an air pocket) inside the tube, the received signal varies and external electronics determine if the signal variation is above or below the set threshold. Once the threshold is met the sensor’s output is switched.

Detecting bubbles sounds quite straightforward and simple, but in reality the application can be somewhat complicated. Several factors should be considered for reliable detection. Listed below are a few factors to consider:

  1. Tube diameters (inner and outer)
  2. Tube transparency
  3. Liquid type(s)
  4. Liquid transparency

Tube Diameters

Tube Sensor DrawingBecause a tube acts as a lens for light to travel it’s important to factor in the tube diameters. If there is a large difference between the outer and inner diameters of a particular tube, the outcome is a relatively large tube wall. A large tube wall will allow light rays to travel from the emitter through the wall straight to the detector without passing through the inner diameter of the tube, where the liquid or bubble is present. This causes unreliable detection. By accounting for both the inner and outer tube diameters a proper determination can be made in selecting what type of sensor to use to ensure that light only passes through the inner diameter of the tube and not through the wall.

Tube Transparency

Since photoelectric tube sensors operate on the principle of light detection, light must make it through one end of the tube and out the other end. Therefore, the transparency of the tube is critical. If the tube is opaque a photoelectric sensor solution is unlikely; however, in some cases it’s possible for a photoelectric tube sensor to detect through an opaque tube.

Liquid Type(s) and Transparency

The liquid type(s) and transparency are critical when determining which photoelectric tube sensor to use. If the liquid type is non-aqueous, without factoring in its transparency, it’s best to use the principle of light refraction through the liquid. If the liquid type is aqueous and is completely transparent or semitransparent, it’s best to use the principle of light absorption through the liquid. The following table will help determine what type of sensor to use with respect to the liquid type present inside the tube.


Since the type of applications that require precise bubble detection range in specifications from the use of hundreds of different liquids to specialized tube dimensions, this post only touches the surface of the photoelectric sensors for bubble detection.  For more information on tube sensors, please visit the Balluff website.

The Killer Application for Capacitive Sensors

Written by: Bjoern Schaefer

Capacitive sensors certainly serve a niche within the group of proximity sensors.  This niche makes people overlook the most striking feature this technology provides us – remote detection of any liquid through glass or plastic walls.  On the first look that does not sound too exciting and I agree, as long as you have not been tasked to specify a sensor to accomplish this very job.

Continue reading “The Killer Application for Capacitive Sensors”