Why Use Ultrasonic Sensors?

by Nick Smith

When choosing what sensor to use in different applications, it is important to first look at how they operate. Capacitive sensors generate an electrical field that can detect various liquids or other materials, such as glass, wood, paper, ceramic, and more at a close. Photoelectric sensors emit a light beam that is either received by a light sensor or bounced back to the emitter to detect an object’s presence or measure the distance to an object. Ultrasonic sensors bounce a sound wave off objects to detect them, which can make them a good solution for a surprising variety of uses.

How ultrasonic sensors operate

Ultrasonic sensors operate by emitting an ultra-high frequency sound wave that ranges from 300 MHz to 3 GHz, which is well above the 15-17 kHz range that humans can hear that bounces off the target object. The sensor measures the amount of time that sound wave takes to return to calculate the distance to the object. Ultrasonic sensors send these sound waves in a wider beam than a photoelectric uses, so they can more easily detect objects in a dusty or dirty environment. And with a greater sensing distance than capacitive sensors, they can be installed at a safe distance and still function effectively

Common applications for ultrasonic sensors

These capabilities together make ultrasonic sensors a great choice for tasks like detecting fill level, stack height and object presence. Sound waves are unaffected by the color, transparency, or consistency of an object or liquid, which makes it an obvious contender in the packaging, food, and beverage industry and many other industries with similar manufacturing processes.

So to monitor glass bottles as they travel on a conveyor, an ultrasonic sensor could be a good choice. These sensors will consistently work well detecting clear or reflective materials such as water, paint, glass, etc., which can cause difficulties for photoelectric sensors. Another benefit of these sensors is the ability to mount them further away from their targets. For example, there are ultrasonics that can be mounted between 20 to 8000 mm away from the object. After tuning your setup, you can detect very small objects as easily as larger, more visible items.

Another common application for ultrasonic sensors is monitoring boxes. Properly implemented ultrasonic sensors can detect different sizes of boxes as they travel on a conveyor belt by constantly emitting and receiving sound waves. This means that each box or object will be measured by the sound wave. Different photoelectric and capacitive sensors may fail to detect the full presence of an object and may only be able to detect a specific point on an object.

When it comes to all types of different fill-level applications, there are many ways a sensor can monitor various liquids and solids. The width of an ultrasonic beam can be increased to detect a wider area of solid material in a hopper or decreased to give a precise measurement on liquid levels. This ability to detect a smaller or larger surface area gives the user more utility when deciding how to meet the requirements of an application. Although capacitive sensors can detect fill levels very precisely as well, factors like beam width and sensing distance might make ultrasonic a better choice.

With so many different sensor technologies available and factors like target material and sensing distance being such important factors, choosing the best sensor for an application can be demanding. A trusted expert who is familiar with these different technologies and the factors related to your applications and materials can help you confidently move toward the smart factory of the future.

Reviewing options for optimized level detection in the food & beverage industry

Level detection plays an important role in the food and beverage industry, both in production and filling. Depending on the application, there are completely different requirements for level detection and, therefore, different requirements for the technologies and sensors to solve each task.

In general, we can differentiate between two requirements — Do I want to continuously monitor my filling level so that I can make a statement about the current level at any time? Or do I want to know if my filling level has reached the minimum or maximum?

Let’s look at both requirements and the appropriate level sensors and technologies in detail.

Precisely detecting point levels

For point level detection we have three different options.

A through-beam fork sensor on the outside of the tank is well suited for transparent container walls and very special requirements. Very accurate and easy to install, it is a good choice for critical filling processes while also being suitable for foaming materials.

Image 1
One point level detection through transparent container walls

For standard applications and non-metallic tank walls, capacitive sensors, which can be mounted outside the tank, are often the best choice. These sensors work by detecting the change of the relative electric permittivity. The measurement does not take place in direct contact with the medium.

Figure 2
Minimum/maximum level detection with capacitive sensors

For applications with metal tanks, there are capacitive sensors, which can be mounted inside the tank. Sensors, which meet the special requirements for cleanability (EHEDG, IP69K) and food contact material (FCM) required in the food industry,  are mounted via a thread and a sealing element inside the tank. For conductive media such as ketchup, specially developed level sensors can be used which ignore the adhesion to the active sensor surface.

Figure 3
Capacitive sensors mounted inside the tank

Continuous level sensing

Multiple technologies can be used for continuous level sensing as well. Choosing the best one depends on the application and the task.

Continuous level detection can also be solved with the capacitive principle. With the aid of a capacitive adhesive sensor, the level can be measured from the outside of the tank without any contact with the sensor. The sensor can be easily attached to the tank without the use of additional accessories. This works best for tanks up to 850 mm.

Figure 4
Continuous level detection with a capacitive sensor head

If you have fast and precise filling processes, the magnetostrictive sensing principle is the right choice. It offers very high measuring rate and accuracy. It can be used for tank heights from 200 mm up to several meters. Made especially for the food and beverage  industry, the sensor has the Ecolab, 3A and FDA certifications. Thanks to corrosion-free stainless steel, the sensor is safe for sterilization (SIP) and cleaning (CIP) in place.

Figure 5
Level detection via magnetostrictive sensing principle

If the level must be continuously monitored from outside the tank, hydrostatic pressure sensors are suitable. Available with a triclamp flange for hygienic demands, the sensor is mounted at the bottom of the tank and the level is indirectly measured through the pressure of the liquid column above the sensor.

Figure 6
Level detection via hydrostatic pressure sensor

Level detection through ultrasonic sensors is also perfect for the hygienic demands in the food industry. Ultrasonic sensors do not need a float, are non-contact and wear-free, and installation at the top of the tank is easy. Additionally, they are insensitive to dust and chemicals. There are even sensors available which can be used in pressurized tanks up to 6 bar.

Figure 7
Level detection via ultrasonic sensor

Product bundle for level monitoring in storage tanks

On occasion, both types of level monitoring are required. Take this example.

The tanks in which a liquid is stored at a food manufacturer are made of stainless steel. This means the workers are not able to recognize whether the tanks are full or empty, meaning they can’t tell when the tanks need to be refilled to avoid production downtime.

The solution is an IO-Link system which consists of different filling sensors and a light to visualize the filling level. With the help of a pressure sensor attached to the bottom of the tanks, the level is continuously monitored. This is visualized by a machine light so that the employee can see how full the tank is when passing by. The lights indicate when the tank needs to be refilled, while a capacitive sensor indicates when the tank is full eliminating overfilling and material waste.

Figure 8
Level monitoring in storage tanks

To learn more about solutions for level detection visit balluff.com