Choosing the Right Sensor for Measuring Distance

Distance-measuring devices help with positioning, material flow control, and level detection. However, there are several options to consider when it comes to choosing the correct sensor technology to measure distance. Here I’ll cover the three most commonly used types in the industrial automation world today, including photoelectric, ultrasonic, and inductive.

Photoelectric sensors

Photoelectric sensors use a light source, such as a laser or light-emitting diode, to reflect the light off an object’s surface to calculate the distance between the face of the sensor and the object itself. The two basic principles for how the sensor calculates the distances are the time of flight (TOF) and triangulation.

    • Time of flight photoelectric distance measurement sensors derive the distance measurement based on the time it takes the light to travel from the sensor to the object and return. These sensors are used to measure over long distances, generally in the range between 500 millimeters and up to 5 meters, with a resolution between 1 to 5 millimeters, depending on the sensor specifications. Keep in mind that this sensor technology is also used in range-finding equipment with a much greater sensing range than traditional industrial automation sensors.

    • In the triangulation measurement sensor, the sensor housing, light source, and light reflection form a triangle. The distance measurement is based on the light reflection angle within its sensing range with high accuracy and resolution. These sensors have a much smaller distance measurement range that is limited to between 20 and 300 millimeters, depending on the sensor specifications.

The pros of using photoelectric distance measurement sensors are the range, accuracy, repeatability, options, and cost. The main con for using photoelectric sensors for distance measurement is that they are affected by dust and water, so it is not recommended to use them in a dirty environment. The object’s material, surface reflection, and color also affect its performance.

Photoelectric distance measurement sensors are used in part contouring, roll diameter measurement, the position of assemblies, thickness detection, and bin-level detection applications.

Ultrasonic sensors

Ultrasonic distance sensors work on a similar principle as photoelectric distance sensors but instead of emitting light, they emit sound waves that are too high for humans to hear, and they use the time of flight of reflecting sound wave to calculate the distance between the object and the sensor face. They are insensitive to the object’s material, color, and surface finish. They don’t require the object or target to be made of metal like inductive position sensors (see below). They can also detect transparent objects, such as clear bottles or different colored objects, that photoelectric sensors would have trouble with since not enough light would be reflected back to reliably determine the distance of an object. The ultrasonic sensors have a limited sensing range of approximately 8 meters.

A few things to keep in mind that negatively affect the ultrasonic sensor is when the object or target is made of sound-absorbing material, such as foam or fabric, where the object absorbs enough soundwave emitted from the sensor making the output unreliable. Also, the sensing field gets progressively larger the further away it gets from the sensing face, thus making the measurement inaccurate if there are multiple objects in the sensing field of the sensor or if the object has a contoured surface. However, there are sound-focusing attachments that are available to limit the sensing field at longer distances making the measurements more accurate.

Inductive sensors

Inductive distance measurement sensors work on the same principle as inductive proximity sensors, where a metal object penetrating the electromagnetic field will change its characteristics based on the object size, material, and distance away from the sensing face. The change of the electromagnetic field detected by the sensor is converted into a proportional output signal or distance measurement. They have a quick response time, high repeatability, and linearity, and they operate well in harsh environments as they are not affected by dust or water. The downside to using inductive distance sensors is that the object or target must be made of metal. They also have a relatively short measurement range that is limited to approximately 50 millimeters.

Several variables exist to consider when choosing the correct sensor technology for your application solution, such as color, material, finish, size, measurement range, and environment. Any one of these can have a negative effect on the performance or success of your solution, so you must take all of them into account.

Choosing a Contactless Sensor to Measure Objects at a Distance

Three options come to mind for determining which contactless sensor to use when measuring objects at a distance: photoelectric sensors, ultrasonic sensors, and radar detection. Understanding the key differences among these types of technologies and how they work can help you decide which technology will work best for your application.

Photoelectric sensor

The photoelectric sensor has an emitter that sends out a light source. Then a receiver receives the light source. The common light source LED (Light Emitting Diodes), has three different types:

    • Visible light (usually red light) has the shortest wavelength, but allows for easy installment and alignment as the light can be seen.
    • Lasers are amplified beams that can deliver a large amount of energy over a distance into a small spot, allowing for precise measurement.
    • Infrared light is electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths longer than visible light, generally making them invisible to the humans. This allows for infrared to be used in harsher environments that contain particles in the air.

Along with three types of LEDs, are three models of photoelectric sensors:

    • The retro-reflective sensor model includes both an emitter and receiver in one unit and a reflector across from it. The emitter sends the light source to the reflector which then reflects the light back to the receiver. When an object comes between the reflector and the emitter, the light source cannot be reflected.
    • The through-beam sensor has an emitter and receiver in two separate units installed across from the emitter. When an object breaks the light beam, the receiver cannot receive the light source.
    • The diffuse sensor includes an emitter and receiver built into one unit. Rather than having a reflector installed across from it the light source is reflective off the object back to the receiver.

The most common application for photoelectric sensors is in detecting part presence or absence. Photoelectric sensors do not work well in environments that have dirt, dust, or vibration. They also do not perform well with detecting clear or shiny objects.

Ultrasonic sensor

The ultrasonic sensor has an emitter that sends a sound wave at a frequency higher than what a human can hear to the receiver.  The two modes of an ultrasonic sensor include:

    • Echo mode, also known as a diffused mode, has an emitter and receiver built into the same unit. The object detection works with this mode is that the emitter sends out the sound wave, the wave then bounces off the target and returns to the receiver. The distance of an object can be determined by timing how long it takes for the sound wave to bounce back to the receiver.
    • The second type of mode is the opposed mode. The opposed mode has the emitter and receiver as two separate units. Object detection for this mode works by the emitter will be set up across from the receiver and will be sending sound waves continuously and an object will be detected once it breaks the field, similarly to how photoelectric sensors work.

Common applications for ultrasonic sensors include liquid level detection, uneven surface level detection, and sensing clear or transparent objects. They can also be used as substitutes for applications that are not suitable for photoelectric sensors.

Ultrasonic sensors do not work well, however, in environments that have foam, vapors, and dust. The reason for this is that ultrasonic uses sound waves need a medium, such as air, to travel through. Particles or other obstructions in the air interfere with the sound waves being produced. Also, ultrasonic sensors do not work in vacuums which don’t contain air.

Radar detection

Radar is a system composed of a transmitter, a transmitting antenna, a receiving antenna, a receiver, and a processor. It works like a diffuse mode ultrasonic sensor. The transmitter sends out a wave, the wave echoes off an object, and the receiver receives the wave. Unlike a sound wave, the radar uses pulsed or continuous radio waves. These wavelengths are longer than infrared light and can determine the range, angle, and velocity of objects. radar also has a processor that determines the properties of the object.

Common applications for radar include speed and distance detection, aircraft detection, ship detection, spacecraft detection, and weather formations. Unlike ultrasonic sensors, radar can work in environments that contain foam, vapors, or dust. They can also be used in vacuums. Radio waves are a form of electromagnetic waves that do not require a transmission medium to travel. An application in which radar does not perform well is detecting dry powders and grains. These substances have low dielectric constants, which are usually non-conductive and have low amounts of moisture.

Choosing from an ultrasonic sensor, photoelectric sensor, or radar comes down to the technology being used. LEDs are great at detecting part presences and absence of various sizes. Sound waves are readily able to detect liquid levels, uneven surfaces, and part presence. Electromagnetic waves can be used in environments that include particles and other substances in the air. It also works in environments where air is not present at all. One technology is not better than the other; each has its strengths and its weaknesses. Where one cannot work, the others typically can.

Tire Industry Automation: When a Photo-Eye Is Failing, Try an Ultrasonic Sensor

Should you use a photo-eye or an ultrasonic sensor for your automation application? This is a great question for tire industry manufacturing.

I was recently at a tire manufacturing plant when a maintenance technician asked me to suggest a photoelectric sensor for a large upgrade project he had coming up. I asked him about the application, project, and what other sensors he was considering.

His reply was a little startling. He said he had always used photo-eyes, but he couldn’t find a dependable one, so he would continually try different brands. My experience in this industry, along with good sensor training and advice from my colleague Jack Moermond, Balluff Sensor Products Manager, immediately made me think that photo-eye sensors were not the right choice for this application.

As I asked more questions, the problem became clear. The tire material the technician was detecting was black and dull. This type of material absorbs light and does not reflect it reliably back to the sensor. Also, environmental factors, such as dust and residue, can diminish a photo-eye’s signal quality.

Ultrasonic sensors for non-reflective materials and harsh environments

The technician didn’t have much experience with ultrasonic sensors, so I went on to explain why these may be a better solution for his application.

While photoelectric sensors send light beams to detect the presence of or measure the distance to an object, ultrasonics bounce sound waves off a target. This means that ultrasonics can be used in applications where an object’s reflectivity isn’t predictable, like with liquids, clear glass or plastic, or other materials. Dust build up on the face of an ultrasonic sensor does not give a false output. Ultrasonic sensors actually have a dead zone a few millimeters from the face where they won’t detect an object until the wave clears the dead zone, so take this into consideration when planning where to install an ultrasonic sensor.

Tire detection for process reliability with BUS ultrasonic sensors

Tire industry applications

The following are some popular tire industry applications where it might be better to choose an ultrasonic sensor over a photo-eye sensor.

    • The tire building process requires a lot of winding and unwinding of material to build the different layers of a tire. As this material is fed through the machines it starts to sag and loop. An ultrasonic sensor in this location will monitor how much sag and loop is in the process.
    • When tires are being loaded into curing presses, the press needs to confirm that the correct size tire is in place. An ultrasonic sensor can measure the height or width of the tire from the sides or top for confirmation.
    • Ultrasonic sensors are great at detecting if a tire or material is in place before a process starts.
    • Hydraulic systems are common in tire manufacturing. Ultrasonic sensors are good for hydraulic fluid level monitoring. Tying them to a SmartLight offers a visual reference and alarm output if needed.
    • Everyone knows the term “wig-wag” in tire mixing and extrusion. The sheets of wig-wag require monitoring as they are fed through the process. When this material gets close to being used up, a new wig-wag must be used.
Wig-wag stacks

So, when there is an application for a photo-eye, especially in a tire manufacturing plant, keep in mind that, rather than a photoelectric sensor, an ultrasonic may be a better option.

The maintenance technician I spoke with is now looking at different options of ultrasonics to use. He said I gave him something new to think about for his machines and opened the door for adding this technology to his plant.

Happy hunting!

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 www.balluff.com.

Solve Difficult Sensing Applications with Ultrasonic Technology

When reviewing or approaching an application, we all know that the correct sensor technology plays a key role in reliable detection of production parts or even machine positioning. In many cases, application engineers choose photoelectric sensors Image1as their go-to solution, as they seem more common and familiar. Photoelectric sensors are solid performers in a variety of applications, but they can run into limitations under certain conditions. In these circumstances, considering an ultrasonic sensor could provide a solid solution.

An ultrasonic sensor operates by emitting ultra-high-frequency sound waves. The sensor monitors the distance to the target by measuring the elapsed time between the emitted and returned sound waves.

Ultrasonic sensors are not affected by color, like photoelectric sensors sometimes are. Therefore, if the target is black in color or transparent, the ultrasonic sensor can still provide a reliable detection output where the photoelectric sensor may not. I was recently approached with an application where a Image2customer needed to detect a few features on a metal angle iron. The customer was using a laser photoelectric sensor with analog feedback measurement, however the results were not consistent or repeatable as the laser would simply pick up every imperfection that was present on the angle iron. This is where the ultrasonic sensors came in, providing a larger detection range that was unaffected by surface characteristics of the irregular target. This provided a much more stable output signal, allowing the customer to reliably detect and error-proof the angle iron application. With the customer switching to ultrasonic sensors in this particular application, they now have better quality control and reduced downtime.
Image3

So when approaching any application, keep in mind that there is a variety of sensor technologies available, and some will provide better results than others in a given situation. Ultrasonic sensors are indeed an excellent choice when applied correctly. They can measure fill level, stack height, web sag, or simply monitor the presence of a target or object. They can also perform reliably in foggy or dusty areas where optical-based technologies sometimes fall short.

For more information on ultrasonic and photoelectric sensors visit www.balluff.com.

Level Sensing in Machine Tools

Certainly the main focus in machine tools is on metal cutting or metal forming processes.

To achieve optimum results in cutting processes coolants and lubricants are applied. In both metal cutting and metal forming processes hydraulic equipment is used (as hydraulics create high forces in compact designs). For coolant, lubricant and hydraulic tanks the usage of level sensors to monitor the tank level of these liquids is required.

Point Level Sensing

For point level sensing (switching output) in many cases capacitive sensors are used. These sensors detect the change of the relative electric permittivity (typically a change of factor 10 from gas to liquid). The capacitive sensors may be mounted at the outside of the tank wall if the tank material is non metallic like e.g. plastic or glass. The installation may even be in retrofit applications yet limited to non metallic tanks up to a certain wall thickness.

When using metal tanks the capacitive sensors enter the inner area of the tank via a thread and a sealing component. Common thread sizes are: M12x1, M18x1, M30x1,5, G 1/4″, NPT 1/4″ etc. For conductive liquids specially designed capacitive level sensors may be used which ignore build up at the sensing surface.

Continuous Level Sensing

Advanced process control uses continuous level sensing principles. The continuous sensor signals e.g. 0..10V, 4…20mA or increasingly IO-Link deliver more information to better control the liquid level, especially relevant in dynamic or precise applications.

When using floats the magnetostrictive sensing principle offers very high resolution of the level value. Tank heights vary from typically 200 mm up to several meters. Another advantage of this sensor principle is the high update rate (supporting fast closed loop systems for level sensing)

In many applications the  requirements for the level control solutions are not too demanding. In these cases the ultrasonic principle has gained significant market share within the last years. Ultrasonic sensors do not need a float, installation on the top of the tank is pretty easy, there are even sensor types available which may be used in pressurized tanks (typically up to 6 bar). As ultrasonic sensors quite often are used in special applications, field tests during the design in process are recommended.

Finally hydrostatic pressure transducers are an option for level sensing when using non pressurized tanks (typically  connected to ambient pressure through a bore in the upper area of the tank). With the sensor mounted at the bottom of the tank the level is indirectly measured through the pressure of the liquid column above the sensor (e.g. 10m of water level resembles 1 bar).

Summary

Concerning level sensing in metalworking applications in the first step it should be decided whether point level sensing is sufficient or continuous level sensing is required. Having chosen continuous level sensing there are several sensor principles available (selection depending on the application needs and features of the liquids and tank properties). It is always a good engineering practice to prove the preselected sensing concept with field tests.

To learn more visit www.balluff.com

Level Detection Basics – Where to begin?

Initially I started to write this blog to compare photoelectric sensors to ultrasonic sensors for level detection. This came to mind after traveling around and visiting customers that had some very interesting applications. However, as I started to shed some light on this with photoelectrics, sorry for the pun but it was intended, I thought it might be better to begin with some application questions and considerations so that we have a better understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of solutions that are available. That being said I guess we will have to wait to hear about ultrasonic sensors until later…get it, another pun. Sorry.

Level detection can present a wide variety of challenges some easier to overcome than others. Some of the questions to consider include the following with some explanation for each:

  • What is the material of the container or vessel?
    • Metallic containers will typically require the sensor to look down to see the media. This application may be able to be solved with photoelectrics, ultrasonics, and linear transducers or capacitive (mounted in a tube and lowered into the media.
    • Smart LevelNon-metallic containers may provide the ability for the sensors look down to see the media with the same technologies mentioned above or by sensing through the walls of the container. Capacitive sensors can sense through the walls of a container up to 4mm thick with standard technology or up to 10mm thick using a hybrid capacitive technology offered by Balluff when detecting water based conductive materials. If the container is clear or translucent we have photoelectric sensors that can look through the side walls to detect the media.
  • What type of sensing is required? The short answer to this is level right? However, there are basically two different types of level detection. For more information on this refer to the Balluff Basics on Level Sensing – Discrete vs. Continuous.
    • Single point level or point level sensing. This is typically accomplished with a single sensor that allows for a discrete or an on-off signal when the level actuates the sensor. The sensor is mounted at the specific level to be monitored, for instance low-low, low, half full (the optimistic view), high, or high-high. These sensors are typically lower cost and easier to implement or integrate into the level controls.
    • Example of in-tank continuous level sensor
      Example of in-tank continuous level sensor

      Continuous or dynamic level detection. These sensors provide an analog or continuous output based on the level of the media. This level detection is used primarily in applications that require precise level or precision dispensing. The output signals are usually a voltage 0-10V or current output 4-20mA.  These sensors are typically higher cost and require more work in integrating them into system controls.  That being said, they also offer several advantages such as the ability to program in unlimited point levels and in the case of the current output the ability to determine if the sensor is malfunctioning or the wire is broken.

Because of the amount of information on level detection this will be the first in a series on this topic. In my next blog I will discuss invasive vs non-invasive mounting and some other topics. For more information visit www.balluff.com.

Liquid Level Sensing: Detect or Monitor?

Pages upon pages of information could be devoted to exploring the various products and technologies used for liquid level sensing and monitoring.  But we’re not going to do that in this article.  Instead, as a starting point, we’re going to provide a brief overview of the concepts of discrete (or point) level detection and continuous position sensing.

 Discrete (or Point) Level Detection

Example of discrete sensors used to detect tank level
Example of discrete sensors used to detect tank level

In many applications, the level in a tank or vessel doesn’t need to be absolutely known.  Instead, we just need to be able to determine if the level inside the tank is here or there.  Is it nearly full, or is it nearly empty?  When it’s nearly full, STOP the pump that pumps more liquid into the tank.  When it’s nearly empty, START the pump that pumps liquid into the tank.

This is discrete, or point, level detection.  Products and technologies used for point level detection are varied and diverse, but typical technologies include, capacitive, optical, and magnetic sensors.  These sensors could live inside the tank outside the tank.  Each of these technologies has its own strengths and weaknesses, depending on the specific application requirements.  Again, that’s a topic for another day.

In practice, there may be more than just two (empty and full) detection points.  Additional point detection sensors could be used, for example, to detect ¼ full, ½ full, ¾ full, etc.  But at some point, adding more detection points stops making sense.  This is where continuous level sensing comes into play.

Continuous Level Sensing

Example of in-tank continuous level sensor
Example of in-tank continuous level sensor

If more precise information about level in the tank is needed, sensors that provide precise, continuous feedback – from empty to full, and everywhere in between – can be used.  This is continuous level sensing.

In some cases, not only does the level need to be known continuously, but it needs to be known with extremely high precision, as is the case with many dispensing applications.  In these applications, the changing level in the tank corresponds to the amount of liquid pumped out of the tank, which needs to be precisely measured.

Again, various technologies and form factors are employed for continuous level sensing applications.  Commonly-used continuous position sensing technologies include ultrasonic, sonic, and magnetostrictive.  The correct technology is the one that satisfies the application requirements, including form factor, whether it can be inside the tank, and what level of precision is needed.

At the end of the day, every application is different, but there is most likely a sensor that’s up for the task.

Ultrasonic Sensor Reflection Targets

In my previous posts (Ultrasonic Sensors with Analog Output, Error-proofing in Window Mode, and The Other Retro-Reflective Sensors) we covered the Ultrasonic sensor modes and how they benefit in many different types of applications. It is also important to understand the reflection properties of various materials and how they interface with the sensor selected. For example some Photoelectric sensors will have a very difficult time detecting clear materials such as glass or clear films as they will simply detect directly through the clear material detecting what is on the other side giving a false positive target reading. As we know, this is not an issue with an Ultrasonic sensor as they detect targets via a sound wave so clear objects do not affect the sensors function. When looking at sensor technologies it is import to understand the material target before selecting the correct sensor for the applied application such as an Inductive sensor would be selected if we are looking at a ferrous (metal) target at short range. Below are some examples of good and poor reflective materials when Ultrasonic sensors are used.

Good Reflective MaterialsUltrasonicApplication

  • Water
  • Paint
  • Wood
  • Metal
  • Plastic
  • Concrete/Stone
  • Glass
  • Hard Rubber
  • Hard Foam

Challenging Relective Materials

  • Cotton Wool
  • Soft Carpet
  • Soap Foams
  • Powders With Air
  • Soft Foam
  • Soft Rubber

So as you can see materials that are hard or solid have good reflective properties whereas soft materials will absorb the sound wave provided from the sensor making it much more challenging to detect our target. For more information on Ultrasonic sensors click here.

Ultrasonic Sensors with Analog Output

Many times in an application we need more than a simple discrete on/off output. For a more accurate detection mode we can utilize analog outputs to monitor position, height, fill-levels and part presence typically found in object detection assemblies. When utilizing Ultrasonic sensors with an analog output we can simply measure the distance value that is proportional to the distance of our target within the operating range of the sensor. Typically 0…10V or 4…20mA outputs are available with the option of rising or falling characteristics. Rising and falling is a way to invert the view of the output, so 0…10V would simply be inverted to 10…0V or 4…20mA would be 20…4mA.

Ultrasonic sensor offerings are a great alternative as they can deal with difficult targets that are typically a challenge for other sensor technologies. They also offer very good resolution with the options of long and short range detection. Below is an example of a 4…20mA linear output. As you can see the closer our target gets to the sensor face it indicates an output closer to 4mA and the further away from the sensor it will provide and output closer to 20mA. For more information on Ultrasonic sensors, click here.

AnalogUltrasonic