Engineering Notes by Oriental Motor

An Overview of Optical Encoder, Magnetic Encoder, and Capacitive Encoder Technologies (and Selection Guide)

[fa icon="calendar"] Nov 15, 2023 12:43:00 PM / by Johann Tang

Johann Tang

Encoders can be installed on motors to precisely track their position and speed.  Encoder feedback is essential for closed-loop motion control and can enhance accuracy, reliability, and even efficiency for machinery and robotics.  In this article, we go over how various types of encoders work and share some selection tips.

PKP Series stepper motor with encoder

stepper motor encoder - system configuration

 

How do Encoders Work?

An encoder is typically installed on the rear shaft of a motor.  The encoder can sense the rotation of the motor shaft as it rotates.

The method that each type of encoder tracks shaft rotation differs, but they all generate a pulsetrain signal as a motor shaft rotates.  By doing some simple math, the number of pulses can tell you the location of the motor shaft and how far it has rotated from a home position.  For example, if the encoder resolution is 200 pulses/rev and the encoder outputs 200 pulses, then you know the motor shaft has rotated one full revolution.  The frequency of the pulses, measured in Hz (or pulses per second), can tell you how fast the motor shaft is rotating.  The direction is determined by monitoring which channel of pulses is leading the other (A or B-phase).  This is the short explanation.

 

Knowing what to do with the pulses is the next step.  Here's a video that shows how an encoder is used on a diverting conveyor application that uses a stepper motor.

 

 

Now let's dig a little deeper into the various types of encoders and how they work.

 

Rotary or Linear?

At the highest level, encoders are separated into two categories: rotary and linear.  For this article, we will focus on rotary encoder technologies, but just know that linear encoders work the same way and can be more accurate in linear motion applications dealing with backlash.  Instead of a code wheel used by rotary encoders, linear encoders use a code strip, which is like a linear version of a code wheel.

 

Optical Encoders: Most Common

Optical encoders are the most common type of encoders used and provide the highest precision, accuracy, and resolution.  Since the light emitter and light receiver are electrically operated, they require a constant power supply to work.

In a traditional "transmissive" optical encoder typically mounted on the rear shaft of stepper motors, brushless motors, or servo motors, the main components consist of a light emitter (ie: LED), a code wheel, a light receiver (photo sensor), a power circuit, and an output circuit.   With these 3 components, motion can be sensed by the following method.

 

The code wheel is a wheel with slits cut out near the outside of the wheel.  As the code wheel is rotated by the motor shaft, the light from the stationery light emitter either is blocked by the code wheel or shines through the slits in the code wheel.  This provides a stream of binary on/off "pulses" of light from the photo sensor's perspective, and the output circuit outputs an ON signal when the light shines through, and an OFF signal when the light is blocked.   A motor driver, PLC, or HMI typically interprets the pulsetrain signal and can convert it to steps, degrees, inches, or mm for a quicker understanding of where the motor shaft is, and how fast it's moving.  Additional measures, such as position correction, can be performed on the fly. Encoder code wheel

Source: US Digital

There are many classifications of the optical encoder as explained below.

 

Transmissive or Reflective?

Traditionally, optical encoders are the transmissive type, which means the LED light has to shine through the transmissive disk (code wheel), and then to the photo (light) sensor.  In recent years, the transmissive disk has been replaced by a reflective disk to save space.

 

Optical encoders

Source: US Digital

 

Incremental or Absolute?

Incremental encoders detect and output a pulse signal but only can track changes in relation to a home position. The reason is that the code wheel inside an incremental encoder does not provide any unique position values as every position value is treated the same.  Only if you have a third Z or index channel, then there is one absolute position that can be used to reference a home starting position.

If you look at a code wheel of an incremental encoder, every slit looks the same.  If power is lost, the position information is also lost, and the motor or linear actuator will need to perform a homing operation to start counting pulses from the beginning; often requiring a restart of the machine.

Incremental encoders are typically more affordable and suitable for applications where absolute position feedback isn't critical, such as in speed control systems where it's more important to track velocity and acceleration. 

incremental encoder diagram

Source: US Digital

 

absolute encoder diagram

Source: US Digital

Since the code wheel of an absolute encoder has a unique pattern for each position and can provide multiple "bits" of information, it can provide a unique position value over a full rotation or stroke. As the motor shaft rotates, sensors read the coded pattern to determine the absolute position. This allows the controller to know the exact position at any given time, even after a power loss. 

Absolute encoders are essential for applications where position accuracy and repeatability are critical, such as in robotics, CNC machines, and precision automation. However, absolute encoders are more expensive than incremental encoders. Many absolute encoders provide position information with an accuracy of ±1 degree or better over a full rotation. Some absolute linear encoders can achieve position accuracy of just a few microns over the full stroke. 

 

Magnetic Encoders: Emerging

Magnetic encoders do not use a light emitter nor a light receiver but do use a code wheel and a sensor.  Instead of slits, the code wheel has alternating north and south pole magnets on the outer edge of the code wheel.  The magnetic sensor senses changes in magnetic polarity when the poles pass by.  The end result is the same as the output circuit outputs pulses to a PLC or HMI.  Since there's no need to power the light emitter and receiver, the magnetic encoder uses less power than an optical encoder.

magnetic encoders

Source: US Digital

Magnetic encoders are more robust than optical encoders in the sense that they can operate better in humid, dusty, or dirty environments.  However, magnetic encoders may not work well in an environment with magnetic interference.  Magnetic encoders are also offered in rotary, linear, incremental, and absolute types.

 

Capacitive Encoders: Newest

capacitive encoders

Source: US Digital

Capacitive encoders use a newer technology that offers the same environmental benefits as magnetic encoders.  According to US Digital, this type of encoder detects changes in capacitance using a high frequency reference signal and then converts the signal into pulses.  The structure includes a transmitter, a rotor, and a receiver.  The rotor typically has a pattern etched into it or has a uniquely shaped design.  When the rotor moves in between the transmitter and the receiver, the pattern modulates the high frequency signal generated by the transmitter.  The receiver is able to read the modulated signal and translate it to a pulse signal.

Like an optical encoder, capacitive encoders are susceptible to noise and electrical interference, so sometimes additional preventative measures have to be made.  Capacitive encoders also have a low current draw.  Capacitive encoders are also offered in rotary, linear, incremental, and absolute types.

 

👉 The Case for Magnetic Encoders

Magnetic encoder technology is emerging as a competitive alternative to traditional optical encoders.  Compared to optical encoders, magnetic encoders offer similar resolution, durability, and accuracy, and they can be an economical alternative in environments without magnetic interference.

Magnetic encoders offer two main advantages over traditional optical encoders:

  • Greater Durability: With no moving parts or optics, magnetic encoders are highly resistant to dust, debris, and vibration. They can operate reliably in harsh, industrial environments where optical encoders would fail.

  • Decreasing Cost: Magnetic encoder prices have dropped dramatically in recent years. Their simple, solid-state design also reduces maintenance and repair costs over the product life cycle.

Magnetic encoders provide an optimal solution for precision motion control and automation by delivering a combination of performance, durability, and value to track incremental position changes.  As costs continue to decrease, they are poised to remain a competitive choice in encoder applications across many industries. 

For example, Oriental Motor offers an incremental magnetic encoder with 1,000 PPR with the PKP Series.  Its resolution is higher than traditional optical incremental encoders, which typically matches the motor resolution at either 200 or 400 PPR.  Its Z-phase output can be used for simple home detection (along with the TIM output).

 

PKP encoder type stepper motor
  • Optical (reflective) or magnetic
  • 200, 400, or 1,000 P/R
  • 3 channels (A, B, Z)
  • TTL or line driver output

 

10 Things to Consider When Choosing Optical vs Magnetic vs Capacitive Encoders

With all the choices in the market, determining the right encoder for your application depends on these 10 factors:

  1. Application Requirements:

    • Consider the specific requirements of your application. Different encoder types suit different environments and operational conditions. Optical encoders are common in clean environments, while magnetic or capacitive encoders may be more robust in harsh conditions.
  2. Environmental Conditions:

    • Assess the environmental factors that may affect encoder performance. Optical encoders are sensitive to dust and moisture, while magnetic or capacitive encoders may offer better resilience in dirty or wet environments.
  3. Resolution and Precision:

    • Evaluate the required resolution and precision for your application. Optical encoders often provide higher resolution, making them suitable for applications demanding fine control. Magnetic and capacitive encoders may offer sufficient resolution for less precision-critical applications.
  4. Cost Considerations:

    • Consider your budget constraints. Optical encoders are generally more expensive due to their higher precision, while magnetic and capacitive encoders can be cost-effective alternatives, especially in applications where extreme precision is not essential.
  5. Durability and Reliability:

    • Assess the durability and reliability requirements. Optical encoders may be more fragile, making them suitable for controlled environments. Magnetic and capacitive encoders, on the other hand, can be more robust and resilient in challenging conditions.
  6. Speed and Acceleration:

    • Evaluate the speed and acceleration requirements of your application. Optical encoders are often preferred for high-speed applications due to their low latency, while magnetic or capacitive encoders may be suitable for applications with lower speed requirements.
  7. Size and Form Factor:

    • Consider space constraints and the physical form factor of the encoder. Optical encoders can be more compact and suitable for applications with limited space, while magnetic and capacitive encoders may have different form factors.
  8. Ease of Installation and Alignment:

    • Evaluate the ease of installation and alignment. Optical encoders often require precise alignment for optimal performance, while magnetic or capacitive encoders may offer more flexibility in this regard.
  9. Integration with Control Systems:

    • Consider the compatibility and ease of integration with your control system. Ensure that the chosen encoder type can seamlessly interface with your motion control system and provide the necessary feedback for closed-loop control.
  10. Maintenance Requirements:

    • Assess maintenance needs. Optical encoders may require more frequent maintenance due to their sensitivity to contaminants, whereas magnetic or capacitive encoders may offer a more maintenance-friendly solution in certain environments.

By carefully considering these factors, machine designers can choose the most suitable encoder type for their specific application, optimizing both performance and cost-effectiveness.


By evaluating your exact needs, you can determine which encoder technology is right for your motion control application. 

 

Oriental Motor preassembles encoders with our stepper motors and servo motors for quality.  Every single assembled motor  goes through vigorous reliability testing, including torque, noise, encoder waveform, and pulse count, before they are shipped.  The other day when I was in the factory, I walked by someone that was performing an inspection for encoder screw quality.  Oriental Motor is serious about quality, and we mean it.

 

FYI: Multi-Turn Mechanical Absolute Encoder

For design engineers who would find a magnetic encoder with multi-turn absolute position tracking abilities useful, Oriental Motor has developed a battery-free mechanical absolute encoder that uses magneto-resistive sensing technology to track up to 1,800 revolutions. 

Our patented technology builds onto magnetic encoder technology by using alternating north and south pole magnets on the 1st gear, then mating that gear with additional gears to achieve multi-turn absolute position tracking. 

The additional gears provide multiple "bits" of information at each position value; kind of like an absolute optical encoder.  Since the technology is mechanical in nature, it does not require a battery like traditional optical absolute encoders. 

Advanced functions enabled by this technology, such as sensorless homing and servo emulation mode, can reduce home routine delays and power consumption for more efficient operation.

AZ-zu3 (1)
AZ-zu4b (1)

 

This battery-free mechanical absolute encoder is equipped on all αSTEP AZ Series motors, gearmotors as well as linear actuators, grippers, and rotary actuators from the same product family, which makes it easy to build an entire machine with the same technology.  Talk to us to explore the full potential of the αSTEP AZ Series family.

 

 

The battery-free mechanical absolute encoder is also available on our new AZX Series servo motors.

 

Topics: Stepper Motors, Absolute Positioning, Alphastep Hybrid Control, New Product Introductions, Encoders

Johann Tang

Written by Johann Tang

Johann Tang is a Product Specialist at Oriental Motor USA Corp. with 20+ years of experience in sales, technical application support, and training of various types of fractional horsepower electric motors, gearheads, actuators, drivers, and controllers. Feel free to ask him questions on Linkedin.

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