Posts for April 2019

Encoders 006 - Who Made the First Optical Encoder?

NASA robot

NASA doesn't just make spaceships!

Who Made the First Optical Encoder?

I have been researching the answer to that question for some time and although I have been able to gather some great information both from encoder manufacturers and my own research, at this point I do not have a definitive answer.

Optical encoder patent

When I initially tried searching for an answer, someone had answered the question online stating that the first optical encoder was made by David Cronin in 1964 - based on the date of his patent application (seen above).

First encoder used in space

First Encoder Used in Space

According to chapter 14 on encoders in Space Vehicle Mechanisms: Elements of Successful Design (A textbook that has been used by NASA), Tim Malcolm states that optical encoders were developed about 1951 to address a need for higher resolutions than what was available with other kinds of sensors. In 1958 Baldwin Electronics (now BEI Precision Systems and Space Company, Inc.) provided 18-bit optical encoders which were used in the Atlas missile guidance system. Those encoders were still functioning 36 years later when that article was written.

Back at the beginning, the life of the light source limited the encoder life. Many illumination sources were used based on the technology available at the time. Some light sources used include xenon flash tubes, incandescent lamps, and neon lamps. The first encoder used in space incorporated a redundant gas-filled incandescent light source but it only had a life requirement of 12,000 hours.

First LED encoder used in space

First LED Optical Encoder Used in Space

LED's were a big step forward by providing extended lifetimes with very little degradation. You may have heard a statement that optical encoders have reduced life due to dimming or burning out of the LED. Statements to that effect are contradicted by the chief scientist at BEI. In this same chapter, Tim Malcolm states as of the writing of the chapter (1996), "the concerns with the quality and life of these devices (LED's) which were common years ago have largely disappeared." He also noted that some encoder manufacturers had more than 10 years of continuous use with no encoder failures. Based on those statements, it would be safe to conclude that if your encoder supplier is using high-quality LED's, this should not be an issue.

I was fortunate enough to be able to get in touch with Timothy Malcolm and found out that the first optical encoders were actually made near the end of WWII. Although war is very costly, it has always been a great driver for the the development of new technologies. I will plan to share more about that in our post on May 28th.

Digital Optical Measuring Instrument

Heidenhain's Digital Optical Measuring Instrument

In a future post, we will provide information on how several of the oldest encoder companies came into being. The above photograph shows an optical counter made by Heidenhain, in the early 1960's, for accurate, reliable and easy positioning of slides and carriages on machine tools, gauges, and other instruments. It could actually measure measurements as small at 0.0001" - which is remarkable for that time period.

Encoders have been a key ingredient to space exploration in general from its inception. This is definitely true for NASA. I recommend checking out NASA’s website and articles like this one which mentions how they are used on the International Space Station on cameras to view earth. Here is also a video which gives some background on Valkyrie, the humanoid robot at the top of this post.

It is my goal to make this blog as informative, engaging and as accurate as possible. If you ever have some additional or contrary information, please contact me directly and I will be glad to make any appropriate corrections in a future post. Previous Post

Heidenhaim DOM Source - Heidenhain.de
Early space encoder pictures were provided by Timothy Malcolm.

Written by Steve Mathis
Director of Customer Relations & Marketing

"My goal at US Digital is to work with the excellent teams here to contribute to the success of our customers by eliminating pain points and making it easy for them to do business with us."


Encoders 005 - Common Technologies used by Encoders

Mars Lander

Encoders Have Been Used in Space Exploration for Almost 70 Years

In our March 12th post, we identified different ways by which encoders can be categorized. In that post we focused on the first category - type of movement which encoders are able to monitor. Today we will discuss the second category: sensing technology used in most encoders.

Note: The descriptions and drawings in this post are intentionally simplified to provide an overview of the technologies used in these three kinds of encoders. Future posts will delve more deeply into actual construction and function of encoders and address more of the advantages of each

Optical encoders

Optical encoders have been the most common encoder technology used for many years. To this day they provide the highest levels of precision, accuracy and resolution. Rotary encoders use an optical sensor to detect light that is transmitted through a disk (transmissive) or reflected from a disk (reflective). The disk is also sometimes called a code wheel. The transmissive optical encoder disk has alternating transparent and opaque lines. When the light is received by the sensor, the encoder puts out a high signal. Conversely, when the light is blocked by a line on the code wheel, the sensor puts out a low signal. On a reflective encoder disk the alternating lines are reflective and non-reflective. With a known pattern on the disk, the distance moved and speed of movement can be obtained using the signal information. Linear encoders use the same method with the only difference being a strip is used in place of rotary disk.

magnetic encoders

Magnetic encoders use code wheels with alternating magnetic poles or unique patterns distributed around the wheel according to the resolution required. A magnetic sensor in the encoder detects the change in the magnetic field as the wheel rotates and produces a digital pulse train. Magnetic encoders have an advantage over optical encoders in that they are can be used in areas which have higher humidity, dirt and dust. Magnetic encoders may also operate in various fluid environments. Magnetic encoders use less power than their optical counterparts, but typically do not provide the same resolution or positional accuracy as optical encoders due to inherent non-linearities in the magnetic field.

Use of a magnetic encoder may be preferable to an optical encoder when there is a chance for an optical disk to become fogged as moisture condenses on the code wheel. Consider an application where an optical encoder is held at a very low temperature and then the ambient temperature quickly increases. This quick temperature change can cause condensation on all surfaces of the encoder, including the optical code wheel. When the code wheel surface collects droplets of moisture, the light transfer of the code wheel image to the optical sensor can become distorted and a false or missing signal may occur on the output. With a magnetic encoder design, condensation of moisture is not an issue with the rotating magnet and magnetic sensor.

capacitive encoders

Capacitive encoders are a newer technology but inherently possess all of the same environmental advantages as the magnetic encoders. A capacitive encoder detects the changes in capacitance using a high frequency reference signal. The rotor has either a pattern etched into it or uses a specially shaped design as in the above drawings. When this rotor moves between the transmitter and receiver, that pattern modulates the high frequency signal of the transmitter. The receiver reads the modulations and those changes are translated into increments of rotary motion. Although capacitive encoders can be more susceptible to noise and electrical interference—the manufacturer of the encoder can mitigate that potential issue with appropriate engineering. Another benefit of using a capacitive encoder is the typically lower current draw - 10 milliamps is not uncommon.

There are advantages and disadvantages of each technology used. My suggestion is to determine your requirements and then compare specifications to ensure the encoder you are looking at will meet your needs. In a future post we will discuss how to choose an encoder. If you have any additional questions, please feel free to contact me via email or LinkedIn.

Have you ever seen the first encoder used in space? We will have that and more in our next post.

It is my goal to make this blog as informative, engaging and as accurate as possible. If you ever have some additional or contrary information, please contact me directly and I will be glad to make any appropriate corrections in a future post. Previous Post

Mars Lander picture source - Space.com

Written by Steve Mathis
Director of Customer Relations & Marketing

"My goal at US Digital is to work with the excellent teams here to contribute to the success of our customers by eliminating pain points and making it easy for them to do business with us."