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.

Sensor Mounting Made Easy

So, you’ve figured out the best way to detect the product shuttle paddle in your cartoning/packaging machine needs a visible red laser distance sensor. It’s taken some time to validate that this is the right sensor and it will be a reliable, long-term solution.

But then you realize there are some mechanical issues involved with the sensor’s placement and positioning that will require a bit of customization to mount it in the optimal location. Now things may have just become complicated. If you can’t design the additional mounting parts yourself, you’ll have to find someone who can. And then you have to deal with the fabrication side. This all takes time and more effort than just buying the sensor.

Or does it?

Off-the-shelf solutions

It doesn’t have to be that complex. There are possible off-the-self solutions you can consider that will make this critical step of providing a reliable mounting solution – possibly as straightforward as choosing the right sensor. Multiple companies offer sensor mounting systems that accommodate standard sensor brackets. Over the years, companies have continued to develop new mounting brackets for many of their sensor products, from photoelectric sensors and reflectors to proximity sensors to even RFID heads and linear transducers.

So it’s only natural to take that one step further and create a mounting apparatus and system that not only provides a mounting bracket, but also a stable platform that incorporates the device’s mounting bracket with things like stand-off posts, adjustable connection joints, and mounting bases. Such a flexible and extensive system can solve mounting challenges with parts you can purchase, instead of having to fabricate.

Imagine in the example above you need to mount the laser distance sensor off the machine’s base and offset it in a way that doesn’t interfere with the other moving parts of the cartoner. Think of these mounting systems and parts as a kind of Erector Set for sensing devices. You can piece together the required mounting bracket with a set of brace or extension rods and a mounting base that raises the sensor up and off the machine base and even angles it to allow for pointing at the target in the most optimal way.

The following are some mounting solutions for a variety of sensors:

These represent only a small number of different ways to mix and match sensor device brackets and mounting components to find a solid, reliable and off-the-shelf mounting solution for your next mounting challenge. So before considering the customization route, next time take a look at what might already be out there for vendors. It could make your life a lot simpler.

Capacitive, the Other Proximity Sensor

What is the first thing that comes to mind if someone says “proximity sensor?” My guess is the inductive sensor, and justly so because it is the most used sensor in automation today. There are other technologies that use the term proximity in describing the sensing mode, including diffuse or proximity photoelectric sensors that use the reflectivity of the object to change states and proximity mode of ultrasonic sensors that use high-frequency sound waves to detect objects. All these sensors detect objects that are in close proximity to the sensor without making physical contact. One of the most overlooked or forgotten proximity sensors on the market today is the capacitive sensor.

Capacitive sensors are suitable for solving numerous applications. These sensors can be used to detect objects, such as glass, wood, paper, plastic, or ceramic, regardless of material color, texture, or finish. The list goes on and on. Since capacitive sensors can detect virtually anything, they can detect levels of liquids including water, oil, glue, and so forth, and they can detect levels of solids like plastic granules, soap powder, sand, and just about anything else. Levels can be detected either directly, when the sensor touches the medium, or indirectly when it senses the medium through a non-metallic container wall.

Capacitive sensors overview

Like any other sensor, there are certain considerations to account for when applying capacitive, multipurpose sensors, including:

1 – Target

    • Capacitive sensors can detect virtually any material.
    • The target material’s dielectric constant determines the reduction factor of the sensor. Metal / Water > Wood > Plastic > Paper.
    • The target size must be equal to or larger than the sensor face.

2 – Sensing distance

    • The rated sensing distance, or what you see in a catalog, is based on a mild steel target that is the same size as the sensor face.
    • The effective sensing distance considers mounting, supply voltage, and temperature. It is adjusted by the integral potentiometer or other means.
    • Additional influences that affect the sensing distance are the sensor housing shape, sensor face size, and the mounting style of the sensor (flush, non-flush).

3 – Environment

    • Temperatures from 160 to 180°F require special considerations. The high-temperature version sensors should be used in applications above this value.
    • Wet or very humid applications can cause false positives if the dielectric strength of the target is low.
    • In most instances, dust or material buildup can be tuned out if the target dielectric is higher than the dust contamination.

4 – Mounting

    • Installing capacitive sensors is very similar to installing inductive sensors. Flush sensors can be installed flush to the surrounding material. The distance between the sensors is two times the diameter of the sensing distance.
    • Non-flush sensors must have a free area around the sensor at least one diameter of the sensor or the sensing distance.

5 – Connector

    • Quick disconnect – M8 or M12.
    • Potted cable.

6 – Sensor

    • The sensor sensing area or face must be smaller or equal to the target material.
    • Maximum sensing distance is measured on metal – reduction factor will influence all sensing distances.
    • Use flush versions to reduce the effects of the surrounding material. Some plastic sensors will have a reduced sensing range when embedded in metal. Use a flush stainless-steel body to get the full sensing range.

These are just a few things to keep in mind when applying capacitive sensors. There is not “a” capacitive sensor application – but there are many which can be solved cost-effectively and reliably with these sensors.

Protecting photoelectric and capacitive sensors

Supply chain and labor shortages are putting extra pressure on automation solutions to keep manufacturing lines running. Even though sensors are designed to work in harsh environments, one good knock can put a sensor out of alignment or even out of condition. Keep reading for tips on ways to protect photoelectric and capacitive sensors.

Mounting solutions for photoelectric sensors

Photoelectric sensors are sensitive to environmental factors that can cloud their view, like dust, debris, and splashing liquids, or damage them with physical impact. One of the best things to do from the beginning is to protect them by mounting them in locations that keep them out of harm’s way. Adjustable mounting solutions make it easier to set up sensors a little further away from the action. Mounts that can be adjusted on three axes like ball joints or rod-and-mount combinations should lock firmly into position so that vibration or weight will not cause sensors to move out of alignment. And mounting materials like stainless steel or plastic can be chosen to meet factors like temperature, accessibility, susceptibility to impact, and contact with other materials.

When using retroreflective sensors, reflectors and reflective foils need similar attention. Consider whether the application involves heat or chemicals that might contact reflectors. Reflectors come in versions, especially for use with red, white, infrared, and laser lights, or especially for polarized or non-polarized light. And there are mounting solutions for reflectors as well.

Considering the material and design of capacitive sensors

Capacitive sensors must also be protected based on their working environment, the material they detect, and where they are installed. Particularly, is the sensor in contact with the material it is sensing or not?

If there is contact, pay special attention to the sensor’s material and design. Foods, beverages, chemicals, viscous substances, powders, or bulk materials can degrade a sensor constructed of the wrong material. And to switch perspectives, a sensor can affect the quality of the material it contacts, like changing the taste of a food product. If resistance to chemicals is needed, housings made of stainless steel, PTFE, and PEEK are available.

While the sensor’s material is important to its functionality, the physical design of the sensor is also important. A working environment can involve washdown processes or hygienic requirements. If that is the case, the sensor’s design should allow water and cleaning agents to easily run off, while hygienic requirements demand that the sensor not have gaps or crevices where material may accumulate and harbor bacteria. Consider capacitive sensors that hold FDA, Ecolab, and CIP certifications to work safely in these conditions.

Non-contact capacitive sensors can have their own special set of requirements. They can detect material through the walls of a tank, depending on the tank wall’s material type and thickness. Plastic walls and non-metallic packaging present a smaller challenge. Different housing styles – flat cylindrical, discs, and block styles – have different sensing capabilities.

Newer capacitive technology is designed as an adhesive tape to measure the material inside a tank or vessel continuously. Available with stainless steel, plastic, or PTFF housing, it works particularly well when there is little space available to detect through a plastic or glass wall of 8mm or less. When installing the tape, the user can cut it with scissors to adjust the length.

Whatever the setting, environmental factors and installation factors can affect the functionality of photoelectric and capacitive sensors, sometimes bringing them to an untimely end. Details like mounting systems and sensor materials may not be the first requirements you look for, but they are important features that can extend the life of your sensors.

 

Direct vs Indirect Mounting of Capacitive Sensors

Direct sensing mount
Figure 1: Direct sensing mount

In liquid level sensing applications, capacitive sensors can be mounted directly in contact with the medium or indirectly with no contact to the medium.

Containers made of metal or very thick non-metallic tank walls (more than 1″) typically require mounting the sensor in direct contact with the medium (Fig. 1). In some instances, a by-pass tube or a sights glass is used, and the senor detects the level through the wall of the non-metallic tube (Fig. 2).

Indirect sensing mount
Figure 2: Indirect sensing mount

The 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.

ChemicalCompatibilityChart

The preferred approach is indirectly mounting the capacitive sensor flush against the non-metallic wall to detect the target material non-invasively through the container wall.  The advantages for this approach are obvious and represent a major influence to specify capacitive sensors.  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.

The target material 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 lies in non-invasive liquid level detection, namely by creating a large measurement delta between the low dielectric container walls 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.  SMARTLEVEL sensors offered by Balluff will ignore foaming, filming and material build-up in these applications.

Learn more about Balluff’s capacitive solutions on our website at www.balluff.us.