Food for Thought: Should a Fork Sensor be Your First Choice?

When it comes to reliability and accuracy, there is no optical sensing mode better than the through-beam photoelectric sensor. Its reliability is a result of the extraordinary levels of excess gain – the measurement of light energy above the level required for normal sensing. The more excess gain, the more tolerant of dirt, moisture and debris accumulating on the sensor.

Excess gain comparison

The accuracy of through-beams results from a tight, well-defined sensing area. This chart shows a comparison between the popular sensing modes.

When it comes to reliability and accuracy, there is no optical sensing mode better than the through-beam photoelectric sensor. Its reliability is a result of the extraordinary levels of excess gain – the measurement of light energy above the level required for normal sensing. The more excess gain, the more tolerant of dirt, moisture and debris accumulating on the sensor. The accuracy of through-beams results from a tight, well-defined sensing area. This chart shows a comparison between the popular sensing modes.

The sensing area starts with an emitted beam projected onto the receiver. The wider the emitted beam, the easier to align. Once aligned, you now have the effective beam which is basically the size of the emitter and receiver lens. The smaller the lens, the smaller the effective beam. Apertures can also be used to narrow down the effective beam.

Simple detection

A target is detected when it breaks the effective beam. The simple detection principle means these sensors can detect anything, regardless of color, texture, or reflectivity. They are generally used in applications that require a sensing range of 2mm to 100m! The simplicity of their operation and wide range make them a go-to detection solution across industries.

Fork sensor, effective beam_emitted beamTraditional through-beam sensors consist of two separate pieces which must be separately mounted and wired, and perfectly aligned to work. This can be inconvenient and time consuming. But for those applications that can use an opening from 5mm to 220mm, self-contained through-beam sensors, also called fork sensors, provide the usefulness of traditional through-beams without the trouble of alignment. With the emitter and receiver in one housing, they are automatically aligned and require only half the wiring effort.

Light types

Available in four different light types – red light, pinpoint red light, infrared and laser – they can detect even difficult and tiny parts. Red light and pinpoint red light are used for most applications, while laser light is used for small part detection, as small as 0.08 mm. Infrared improves detection efforts in dirty environments.

Through-beam sensors are a go-to solution for photoelectric applications, but with tough housings, various lighting options, and the ease of installation and alignment, fork sensors should be first on your list of photoelectric sensors to consider.

Photoelectric Methods of Operation

Photoelectric sensors vary in their operating principles and can be used in a variety of ways, depending on the application. They can be used to detect whether an object is present, determine its position, measure level, and more. With so many types, it can be hard to narrow down the right sensor for your application while accounting for any environmental conditions. Below will give a brief overview of the different operating principles used in photoelectric sensors and where they can be best used.


Diffuse sensors are the most basic type of photoelectric sensor as they only require the sensor and the object being detected. The sensor has a built-in emitter and receiver, so as light is sent out from the emitter and reaches an object, the light will then bounce off the object and enter the receiver. This sends a discrete signal that an object is within the sensing range. Due to the reflectivity being target-dependent, diffuse sensors have the shortest range of the three main discrete operating principles. Background suppression sensors work under the same principle but can be taught to ignore objects in the background using triangulation to ensure any light beyond a certain angle does not trigger an output. While diffuse sensors can be affected by the color of the target object,  the use of a background suppression sensor can limit the effect color has on reliability. Foreground suppression sensors work in the same manner as background suppression but will ignore anything in the foreground of the taught distance.



Retro-reflective sensors also have the emitter and receiver in a single housing but require a reflector or reflective tape be mounted opposite the sensor for it to be triggered by the received light. As an object passes in front of the reflector, the sensor no longer receives the light back, thus triggering an output. Due to the nature of the reflector, these sensors can operate over much larger distances than a diffuse sensor. These sensors come with non-polarized or polarizing filters. The polarizing filter allows for the sensor to detect shiny objects and not see it as a reflector and prevents any stray ambient light from triggering the sensor.



Through-beam sensors have a separate body for the emitter and receiver and are placed opposite each other. The output is triggered once the beam has been broken. Due to the separate emitter and receiver, the sensor can operate at the longest range of the aforementioned types. At these long ranges and depending on the light type used, the emitter and receiver can be troublesome to set up compared to the diffuse and retro-reflective.



The previous three types of photoelectric sensors give discrete outputs stating whether an object is present or not. With photoelectric distance sensors, you can get a continuous readout on the position of the object being measured. There are two main ways the distance of the object is measured, time of flight, which calculates how long it takes the light to return to the receiver, and triangulation, which uses the angle of the incoming reflected light to determine distance. Triangulation is the more accurate option, but time of flight can be more cost-effective while still providing good accuracy.

Light type and environment

With each operating principle, there are three light types used in photoelectric sensors: red light, laser red light, and infrared. Depending on the environmental conditions and application, certain light types will fare better than others. Red light is the standard light type and can be used in most applications. Laser red light is used for more precise detection as it has a smaller light spot. Infrared is used in lower-visibility environments as it can pass through more dirt and dust than the other two types. Although infrared can work better in these dirtier environments, photoelectric sensors should mainly be used where build-up is less likely. Mounting should also be considered as these sensors are usually not as heavy duty as some proximity switches and break/fail more easily.

As you can see, photoelectric sensors have many different methods of operation and flexibility with light type to help in a wide range of applications. When considering using these sensors, it is important to account for the environmental conditions surrounding the sensor, as well as mounting restrictions/positioning, when choosing which is right for your application.

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Back to the Basics – Photoelectric Light Source

Welcome to the first in a series of getting back to the basic blogs about photoelectric sensors.

LightTypeAll photoelectric sensors require a light source to operate. The light source is integral to the sensor and is referred to as the emitter. Some light sources can be seen and may be of different colors or wavelengths for instance red, blue, green, white light or laser or one you cannot see, infrared. Many years ago photoelectric sensors used incandescent lights which were easily damaged by vibration and shock. The sensors that used incandescence were susceptible to ambient light which limited the sensing range and how they were installed.

Today light sources use light emitting diodes (LED’s). LED’s cannot generate the light that the incandescent bulbs could. However since the LED is solid state, it will last for years, is not easily damaged, is sealed, smaller than the incandescent light and can survive a wide temperature range. LED’s are available in three basic versions visible, laser and infrared with each having their advantages.

Visible LED’s which are typically red, aid in the alignment and set up of the sensor since it will provide a visible beam or spot on the target. Visible red LED’s can be bright and should be aimed so that the light will not shine in an operator’s eyes. The other color visible LED’s are used for specific applications such as contrast, luminescence, and color sensors as well as sensor function indication.

Laser LED’s will provide a consistent light color or wavelength, small beam diameter and longer range however these are generally more costly. Lasers are often used for small part detection and precision measuring. Although the light beam is small and concentrated, it can be easily interrupted by airborne particles. If there is dust or mist in the environment the light will be scattered making the application less successful than desired. When a laser is being used for measuring make sure the light beam is larger than any holes or crevasses in the part to ensure the measurement is as accurate as possible. Also it is important to ensure that the laser is installed so that it is not aimed into an operator or passerby’s eyes.

Lastly, the infrared LED will produce an invisible, to the human eye, light while being more efficient and generating the most light with the least amount of heat. Infrared light sources are perfect for harsh and contaminated environments where there is oil or dust. However, with the good comes the bad. Since the light source is infrared and not visible setup and alignment can be challenging.

LED’s have proved to be robust and reliable in photoelectric sensors. In the next installment we will review LED modulation.

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