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

Precision Pneumatic Cylinder Sensing

When referring to pneumatic cylinders, we are seeing a need for reduced cylinder and sensor sizes. This is becoming a requirement in many medical, semiconductor, packaging, and machine tool applications due to space constraints and where low mass is needed throughout the assembly process.

These miniature cylinder applications are typically implemented into light-to-medium duty applications with lower air pressures with the main focus being precision sensing Image 2with maximum repeatability. For example, in many semiconductor applications, the details
and tolerances are much tighter and more controlled than say, a muffler manufacturer that uses much more robust equipment with slower cycle times. In some cases, manufacturing facilities will have several smaller sub-assemblies that feed into the main assembly line. These sub-assemblies can have several miniature pneumatic cylinders as part of the process. Another key advantage miniature cylinders offer is quieter operation due to lower air pressures, making the work place much safer for the machine operators and maintenance technicians. With projected growth in medical and semiconductor markets, there will certainly be a major need for miniature assembly processes including cylinders, solenoids, and actuators used with miniature sensors.

One commonality with miniature cylinders is they require the reliable wear-free position detection available from magnetic field sensors. These sensors are miniature in size, however Image 1offer the same reliable technology as the full-size sensors commonly used in larger assemblies. Miniature magnetic field sensors play a key role as speed, precision, and weight all come into play. The sensors are integrated into these small assemblies with the same importance as the cylinder itself. Highly accurate switching points with high precision and high repeatability are mandatory requirements for such assembly processes.

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Evolution of Magnetic Field Sensors

When I visit customers, often a few minutes into our conversation they indicate to me they “must decrease their manufacturing downtime.” We all know that an assembly line or weld cell that is not running is not making any money or meeting production cycle times. As we have the conversation regarding downtime, the customer always wants to know what new or improved products are available that can increase uptime or improve their current processes.

A major and common problem seen at the plant level is a high amount of magnetic field sensor failures. There are many common reasons for this, for example low-quality sensors being used such as Reed switches that rely on mechanical contact operation. Reed switches typically have a lower price point than a discrete solid state designs with AMR or GMR technologies, however these low-cost options will cost much more in the long run due to inconsistent trigger points and premature failure that results in machine downtime. Another big factor in sensor failure is the operating environment of the pneumatic cylinder. It is not uncommon to see a cylinder located in a very hostile area, resulting in sensor abuse and cable damage. In some cases, the failure is traceable to a cut cable or a cable that has been burned through from weld spatter.

Below are some key tips and questions that can be helpful when selecting a magnetic field sensor.

  • Do I need a T- or C-slot mounting type?
  • Do I need a slide-in or a drop-in style?
  • Do I need an NPN or PNP output?
  • Do I need an offering that has an upgraded cable for harsh environments, such as silicone tubing?
  • Do I need a dual-sensor combination that only has one cable to simplify cable connections?
  • Do I need digital output options like IO-Link that can provide multiple switch points and hysteresis adjustment?
  • Do I need a single teachable sensor that can read both extended and retracted cylinder position?

Magnetic field sensors have evolved over the years with improved internal technology that makes them much more reliable and user-friendly for a wide range of applications. For example, if the customer has magnetic field sensors installed in a weld cell, they would want to select a magnetic field sensor that has upgraded cable materials or perhaps a weld field immune type to avoid false signals caused by welding currents. Another example could be a pick and place application where the customer needs a sensor with multiple switch points or a hysteresis adjustment. In this case the customer could select a single head multiple setpoint teach-in sensor, offering the ability to fine tune the sensing behavior using IO-Link.

If the above tips are put into practice, you will surely have a better experience selecting the correct product for the application.

For more information on all the various types of magnetic field sensors click here.

Simplifying wiring with sensors and Multiple Interface Blocks

When machine builders build assembly machines for their customers they want to keep the wiring as clean and clear as possible for an attractive machine but more importantly the ease of troubleshooting in the event of a failure. Simplifying connections with unnecessary cables and splitters not only makes it easier for the maintenance technicians to trouble shoot but it also saves the company money with unneeded product and components to inventory and maintain.

V-Twin sensor with one cable
V-Twin sensor with one cable

In the past it was common practice to wire sensors and cables all the way back into a terminal box located in sections of an assembly line. This could be very difficult to track down the exact sensor cable for repair and furthermore in some cases five meter cables or longer would be used to make the longer runs back to the terminal box. The terminal boxes would also get very crowded further complicating trouble shooting methods to get the assembly lines back up and running production. This is where Interface Blocks come in and can provide a much cleaner, effective way to manage sensor connections with significantly decreasing downtime.

For example: If our customer has a pneumatic cylinder that requires two sensors, one for the extended position and one for the retracted positon. The customer could run the sensor cables back to the Interface Block. This sometimes is used with a splitter to go into one port to provide the outputs for both sensors only using one port. Now we can take this a step further by using twin magnetic field sensors (V-Twin) with one connection cable. This example eliminates the splitter again eliminating an unneeded component. As you can see in the reference examples below this is a much cleaner and effective way to manage sensors and connections.


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Reed Switches vs. Magnetoresistive Sensors (GMR)

In a previous post we took a look at magnetic field sensors vs inductive proximity sensors for robot grippers. In this post I am going to dive a little deeper into magnetic field sensors and compare two technologies: reed switches, and magnetoresistive sensors (GMR).

Reed Switches

PrintThe simplest magnetic field sensor is the reed switch. This device consists of two flattened ferromagnetic nickel and iron reed elements, enclosed in a hermetically sealed glass tube. As an axially aligned magnet approaches, the reed elements attract the magnetic flux lines and draw together by magnetic force, thus completing an electrical circuit.

While there are a few advantages of this technology like low cost and high noise immunity, those can be outweighed by the numerous disadvantages. These switches can be slow, are prone to failure, and are sensitive to vibration. Additionally, they react only to axially magnetized magnets and require high magnet strength.

Magnetoresistive Sensors (GMR)

PrintThe latest magnetic field sensing technology is called giant magnetoresistive (GMR). Compared to Reed Switches GMR sensors have a more robust reaction to the presence of a magnetic field due to their high sensitivity, less physical chip material is required to construct a practical GMR magnetic field sensor, so GMR sensors can be packaged in much smaller housings for applications such as short stroke cylinders.

GMR sensors have quite a few advantages over reed switches. GMR sensors react to both axially and radially magnetized magnets and also require low magnetic strength. Along with their smaller physical size, these sensors also have superior noise immunity, are vibration resistant. GMR sensors also offer protection against overload, reverse polarity, and short circuiting.

Basic Sensors for Robot Grippers

Robot gripper with inductive proximity sensors mounted
Robot gripper with inductive proximity sensors mounted

Typically when we talk about end-of-arm tooling we are discussing how to make robot grippers smarter and more efficient. We addressed this topic in a previous blog post, 5 Tips on Making End-of-Arm Tooling Smarter. In this post, though, we are going to get back to the basics and talk about two options for robot grippers: magnetic field sensors, and inductive proximity sensors.

One of the basic differences is that detection method that each solution utilizes. Magnetic field sensors use an indirect method by monitoring the mechanism that moves the jaws, not the jaws themselves. Magnetic field sensors sense magnets internally mounted on the gripper mechanism to indicate the open or closed position. On the other hand, inductive proximity sensors use a direct method that monitors the jaws by detecting targets placed directly in the jaws. Proximity sensors sense tabs on moving the gripper jaw mechanism to indicate a fully open or closed position.

Robot gripper with magnetic field sensors mounted

Additionally, each solution offers its own advantages and disadvantages. Magnetic field sensors, for example, install directly into extruded slots on the outside of the cylinder, can detect an extremely short piston stroke, and offer wear-free position detection. On the other side of the coin, the disadvantages of magnetic field sensors for this application are the necessity of a magnet to be installed in the piston which also requires that the cylinder walls not be magnetic. Inductive proximity sensors allow the cylinder to be made of any material and do not require magnets to be installed. However, proximity sensors do require more installation space, longer setup time, and have other variables to consider.