Evolution of Pneumatic Cylinder Sensors

Today’s pneumatic cylinders are compact, reliable, and cost-effective prime movers for automated equipment. They’re used in many applications, such as machinery, material handling, assembly, robotics, and medical. One challenge facing OEMs, integrators and end users is how to detect reliably whether the cylinder is fully extended, retracted, or positioned somewhere in between before allowing machine movement.

A widely used method for cylinder position detection is to attach magnetically actuated switches or sensors to the sides of the cylinder using brackets, or by inserting them into a slot extruded into the body of the cylinder. Magnetic field sensors detect an internal magnet that is mounted on the moving piston through the aluminum cylinder wall.

The selection of which type of magnetic sensors to use depends on your application needs and specific data requirements.

Magnetic Sensor Types

Reed switches

The reed switch is the most simplistic and most often used end-of-stroke sensor available on the market. It consists of two flattened ferromagnetic nickel and iron reed elements enclosed in a hermetically sealed glass tube. The tube aids in minimizing contact arcing and prevents moisture from getting to the switch elements. As an axially aligned magnet approaches the switch element, the reed elements are magnetized and attracted together completing the circuit.

AMR and GMR sensors

Most cylinder manufacturers and OEMs use electronic sensors with either magnetoresistive technology (AMR) or giant magnetoresistive (GMR). Both versions are based on a change in resistance. One advantage of these sensors is that they will work with the axially magnetized magnet and, in some cases, the radially magnetized magnet. GMR sensors can be physically smaller than the AMR sensors. They are more sensitive, more precise and have a better hysteresis. Versions exist that provide reverse polarity protection, overload protection, and short circuit protection.

The initial cost of an AMR or GMR sensor may be slightly more than a reed sensor, however, this cost is increasingly less, especially if you figure the cost of downtime when the reed switch fails. AMR and GMR sensors are also three-wire devices, unlike the two-wire reed switches. In the end, the AMR and GMR sensors are the better solution since there are no moving parts and they typically last much longer than the reed switch.

Position detection sensors for both C-slots and T-slots

Pneumatic cylinders typically have either a C-slot or T-slot feature in the extrusion of the cylinder body. Many sensor housings have these same housing profiles and the sensor can either be dropped into the slot from above and tightened with a screw or slid in from the end of the cylinder provided there is no end plate. For round cylinders or tie rod cylinders, additional brackets are available that can use either a C-slot or T-slot sensor. This allows for commonality of sensors for end users and OEMs to meet the needs of many applications and reduce the number of sensor part numbers and inventory.

Today, there are more options than ever for piston position detection in pneumatic cylinders, including different housing styles to meet the cylinder extrusions. Also available are two sensors – one for extended and one for retracted – that share a single, four-pin connection. These magnetic sensors are also available now with weld field immunity for harsh welding applications.

Technology has advanced as well. Now cylinder sensors can be taught to trigger at certain points along the travel of the piston. The user simply moves the piston to a desired location and presses a button to set the switching location. This teachable sensor can also be connected to IO-Link, allowing up to eight switching points for flexibility in several applications.

Over the years, many users have abandoned reed switches, due to their failure rate, in favor of mechanical or inductive sensors to detect pneumatic cylinder position. AMR and GMR sensors are smaller, faster, easy to integrate, and are much more reliable. With the vast improvements in sensor technology, AMR and GMR sensors should now be considered the primary solution for detecting cylinder position.

Ensure Optimum Performance In Hostile Welding Cell Environments

The image above demonstrates the severity of weld cell hostilities.

Roughly four sensing-related processes occur in a welding cell with regards to parts that are to be joined by MIG, TIG and resistance welding by specialized robotic /automated equipment:

  1. Nesting…usually, inductive proximity sensors with special Weld Field Resistance properties and hopefully, heavy duty mechanical properties (coatings to resist weld debris accumulation, hardened faces to resist parts loading impact and well-guarded cabling) are used to validate the presence of properly seated or “nested” metal components to ensure perfectly assembled products for end customers.
  2. Poke-Yoke Sensing (Feature Validation)…tabs, holes, flanges and other essential details are generally confirmed by photoelectric, inductive proximity or electromechanical sensing devices.
  3. Pneumatic and Hydraulic cylinder clamping indication is vital for proper positioning before the welding occurs. Improper clamping before welding can lead to finished goods that are out of tolerance and ultimately leads to scrap, a costly item in an already profit-tight, volume dependent business.
  4. Several MIB’s covered in weld debris

    Connectivity…all peripheral sensing devices mentioned above are ultimately wired back to the controls architecture of the welding apparatus, by means of junction boxes, passive MIB’s (multiport interface boxes) or bus networked systems. It is important to mention that all of these components and more (valve banks, manifolds, etc.) and must be protected to ensure optimum performance against the extremely hostile rigors of the weld process.

Magnetoresistive (MR), and Giant Magnetoresistive (GMR) sensing technologies provide some very positive attributes in welding cell environments in that they provide exceptionally accurate switching points, have form factors that adapt to all popular “C” slot, “T” slot, band mount, tie rod, trapezoid and cylindrical pneumatic cylinder body shapes regardless of manufacturer. One model family combines two separate sensing elements tied to a common connector, eliminating one wire back to the host control. One or two separate cylinders can be controlled from one set if only one sensor is required for position sensing.

Cylinder and sensor under attack.

Unlike reed switches that are very inexpensive (up front purchase price; these generally come from cylinder manufacturers attached to their products) but are prone to premature failure.  Hall Effect switches are solid state, yet generally have their own set of weaknesses such as a tendency to drift over time and are generally not short circuit protected or reverse polarity protected, something to consider when a performance-oriented cylinder sensing device is desired.  VERY GOOD MR and GMR cylinder position sensors are guaranteed for lifetime performance, something of significance as well when unparalleled performance is expected in high production welding operations.

But!!!!! Yes, there is indeed a caveat in that aluminum bodied cylinders (they must be aluminum in order for its piston-attached magnet must permit magnetic gauss to pass through the non-ferrous cylinder body in order to be detected by the sensor to recognize position) are prone to weld hostility as well. And connection wires on ALL of these devices are prone to welding hostilities such as weld spatter (especially MIG or Resistance welding), heat, over flex, cable cuts made by sharp metal components and impact from direct parts impact. Some inexpensive, effective, off-the-shelf protective silicone cable cover tubing, self-fusing Weld Repel Wrap and silicone sheet material cut to fit particular protective needs go far in protecting all of these components and guarantees positive sensor performance, machine up-time and significantly reduces nuisance maintenance issues.

To learn more about high durability solutions visit www.balluff.com.

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.