Any transducer that generates a “coded” (digital) reading of a measurement can be termed an encoder. Shaft encoders are digital transducers that are used for measuring “angular” displacements and “angular” velocities.
Applications of these devices include motion measurement in performance monitoring and control of robotic manipulators, machine tools, industrial processes (e.g., food processing and packaging, pulp and paper), digital data storage devices, positioning tables, satellite mirror positioning systems, and rotating machinery such as motors, pumps, compressors, turbines, and generators.
High resolution (depending on the word size of the encoder output and the number of pulses generated per revolution of the encoder), high accuracy (particularly due to noise immunity and reliability of digital signals and superior construction), and relative ease of adoption in digital control systems (because transducer output can be read as a digital word), with associated reduction in system cost and improvement of system reliability, are some of the relative advantages of digital transducers in general and shaft encoders in particular, in comparison to their analog counterparts.
Shaft encoders can be classified into two categories, depending on the nature and the method of interpretation of the transducer output:
1. Incremental encoders
2. Absolute encoders
The output of an incremental encoder is a pulse signal, which is generated when the transducer disk rotates as a result of the motion that is being measured. By counting the pulses or by timing the pulse width using a clock signal, both angular displacement and angular velocity can be determined.
With an incremental encoder, displacement is obtained with respect to some reference point. The reference point can be the home position of the moving component (say, determined by a limit switch); or a reference point on the encoder disk, as indicated by a reference pulse (index pulse) generated at that location on the disk. Furthermore, the index pulse count determines the number of full revolutions.
An absolute encoder (or, whole-word encoder) has many pulse tracks on its transducer disk. When the disk of an absolute encoder rotates, several pulse trains—equal in number to the tracks on the disk—are generated simultaneously. At a given instant, the magnitude of each pulse signal will have one of two signal levels (i.e., a binary state), as determined by a level detector (or, edge detector).
This signal level corresponds to a binary digit (0 or 1). Hence, the set of pulse trains gives an encoded binary number at any instant. The pulse windows on the tracks can be organized into some pattern (code) so that the generated binary number at a particular instant corresponds to the specific angular position of the encoder disk at that time.
The pulse voltage can be made compatible with some digital interface logic (e.g., transistor-to-transistor logic, or TTL). Consequently, readout of an angular position is possible with an absolute encoder, thereby expediting digital data acquisition and processing.
Absolute encoders are commonly used to measure fractions of a revolution. However, complete revolutions can be measured using an additional track, which generates an index pulse, as in the case of incremental encoder.