Application of Eddy-Current Sensors for Linear High-Resolution Position Measurement

Except for non-destructive testing, virtually all eddy-current sensor applications are fundamentally a measure of position change of an object. This application note details the specifics of making such a measurement and what is required to make reliable measurements in micro- and nano-position applications.

Linear Position Measurement with Eddy-Current Linear Position Sensors

Linear position measurement here refers to the measurement of the position change of an object. Linear high-resolution non-contact position measurement of conductive objects with eddy-current sensors is the main topic of this Application Note.

Related Terms and Concepts

Because of the high-resolution, short-range nature of eddy-current position sensors, this is sometimes referred to as micro-position measurement and the sensors as micro-position sensors or micro-position transducers. A sensor configured for linear position measurements is sometimes called a position meter or position gauge.

Figure 1. At the micro and nano level, capacitive position sensors are best suited to position (change in position) measurements, rather than absolute measurements.

Displacement Versus Absolute Position

Over time, eddy-current sensor calibration shifts. This shift is primarily a DC offset in the output of the sensor. Changes in Sensitivity (gain) of the sensor are much smaller. Measuring changes in position requires a consistent Sensitivity and is not affected by long-term shifts in DC offset of the output.

  • Intentional Position Change: The object is intentionally moved by a motion control positioning system. The non-contact position measurement indicates the accuracy of the intended position of the object.
  • Part Dimension: The system is configured with a known good “master” part after which the master part is replaced with a part for test. Differences in the dimensions of the test part relative to the master part are indicated as a position change by the eddy-current position sensors.
  • Temperature: The object’s position is measured at an initial temperature. The temperature of interest is changed (often occurring naturally as a machine operates) and a secondary position measurement indicates the magnitude of the position change due to temperature.
  • Vibration: Linear position measurements are made in real time using eddy-current position sensors with an oscilloscope or data acquisition system to indicate the magnitude and frequencies of position changes of the object. See our Vibration Measurement Application Note for more detail.
  • Pressure: Air bearings and other fluid bearings can operate at different fluid pressures. Position measurements of the object at different pressures indicate the actual behavior of the machine as the pressure changes compared to its intended operation.
  • Wear: As bearings and slides wear, non-contact position measurements of the moving parts will indicate increased movement in unintended directions. Rotary motions will show increasing position changes in the X, Y, and Z axes as the object turns.

Linear Position Measurements are Relative Measurements

Linear non-contact position measurements are relative measurements and indicate the change of an object’s position from an initial location in one or more linear axes. A separate eddy-current position sensor channel is required for each axis of linear position measurement.

Basic Linear Position Measurement with Eddy-Current Non-Contact Position Sensors

An eddy-current position sensor is mounted in a fixture such that the object to be measured is within the measurement range of the sensor. If the sensor includes a zero (offset) adjustment, the sensor may be calibrated to zero at this location to make for easier interpretations of linear position measurements when the object moves.

Calculating Position from Eddy-Current Position Sensor Output

Eddy-Current sensors for measuring position have a “sensitivity” specification which specifies the amount of change in the output relative to a given change in the target position. For analog voltage output sensors, this value is given in Volts per unit-of-distance or length (e.g. mm, inch etc.). For digital output sensors, this value is given in Counts per unit-of-distance. When measuring position changes, this sensitivity is used to calculate the physical position relative to the change in output.

Formula for calculating position from a sensor output:

Position Change= Output Change/Sensitivity

Analog Voltage Output sensors:

Output Change = Volts ; Sensitivity = Volts/Unit of distance

Digital Output sensors:

Output Change = Counts; Sensitivity = Counts/Unit of distance.

Micro-Position Errors and Concerns

High-Performance eddy-current position sensors are often used to measure micro-positions. When measuring very small positions at the micro-position level, error sources that are normally inconsequential become a more significant factor.

Thermal Effects

Thermal expansion and contraction of the mounting system that holds the eddy-current non-contact position sensors will introduce errors into the measurement. As the fixture expands or contracts, the sensor may move toward or away from the target object.

Micro-position Sensor Mounting

In addition to thermal concerns, mechanical stability is more complicated at the micro level. The eddy-current position measurement sensors must be held firmly in place by the mounting system. Using a threaded-body style probe locked in place with nuts provides a stable mount.

There are different methods for mounting a smooth cylindrical linear position sensor. Using a set-screw in a through-hole mount only holds the probe at two points – the set-screw and the point opposite the set-screw. Increasing the force on the set-screw will not increase the probe’s stability in these other two axes.

A better, but not perfect linear position sensor mounting scheme is a clamp type mount as shown in Figure 4. This mounting system can stabilize the probe in all three axes if the mounting hole and probe are perfectly round. However, any eccentricity of either part will result in a two-point mounting system similar to the set-screw system.

Figure 2. Set-screw mounting locks the probe along the probe’s axis, but there may still be movement in the other two axes, especially at the micro and nano levels.

Figure 3. A clamp mount is a more stable mount than a set-screw mount. But at the micro and nano levels, form errors can result in only a two-point clamp much like a set-screw mount.

Figure 4. A three-point clamp mount is inherently stable and not effected by small form errors in roundness.

An optimal mounting system uses a three-point clamp with each point covering some significant length along the axis of the probe. The three-point clamp system begins with a typical clamp mounting configuration but also removes material from the clamping hole between three points 120° apart. This arrangement is not affected by eccentricity of the mounting hole or the eccentricity of the non-contact linear position measurement sensor – it is stable in all three axes.

Other Eddy-Current Position Sensor Mounting Considerations

Eddy-Current position sensors use a magnetic field that engulfs the end of the probe. As a result, the “spot-size” of eddy-current position sensors is about 300% of the probe diameter. This means any metallic objects within three probe diameters from the probe will affect the sensor output.

Multiple Probes

When multiple probes are used with the same target, they must be separated by at least three probe diameters to prevent interference between channels. If this is unavoidable, special factory calibrations are possible to minimize interference.

Environmental Considerations

Linear position measurements with eddy-current sensors are immune to foreign material in the measurement area. The great advantage of eddy-current non-contact sensors is that they can be used in rather hostile environments.

All non-conductive materials are invisible to eddy-current sensors. Even metallic materials like chips from a machining process are too small to interact significantly with the sensors.

This information has been sourced, reviewed, and adapted from materials provided by Lion Precision.

For more information on this source, please visit Lion Precision.


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