Industrial Automation

How to select the Right Encoder for Your Process Machinery? : A Comprehensive Guide

  • Choosing the right encoder for your process machinery is a critical decision with far-reaching consequences for your system’s precision and efficiency. 
  • Encoders are available in a variety of varieties, each suited to a certain application, therefore it is critical to carefully examine your needs before making a decision. 
  • This detailed guide will help you through the entire process, from comprehending the basic types of encoders to analyzing specs and added features, ensuring you make an informed decision for your process machinery.
How to select the Right Encoder for Your Process Machinery? : A Comprehensive Guidev 1

How do I choose the right encoder?

Choose the Type of Encoder

Type of Movement: Linear or Rotary

  • The kind of encoder required is mostly determined by the motion of your machinery. 
  • Linear encoders are employed in processes that need back-and-forth or up-and-down linear motions, such as cutting or packaging. 
  • Rotary encoders, on the other hand, are better suited for applications involving rotating motion, such as those found in motor-driven systems or conveyor belts.

What are the two main types of encoders? 

Encoding Principle: Incremental or Absolute

Incremental encoders

How to select the Right Encoder for Your Process Machinery? : A Comprehensive Guide 2
  • These encoders generate position information relative to a reference point. 
  • They produce signals with square waves and require counting to keep track of the position. 
  • Incremental encoders are suitable for applications where knowing the direction and speed of movement is sufficient, like in some motor control systems.

Absolute encoders

  • Absolute encoders, on the other hand, provide a distinct position value for each shaft position. 
  • This position information is retained even if power is lost. They are similar to digital clocks in that you can view the actual time at any time. 
  • This functionality is extremely useful in applications where precise positioning is important, such as CNC machines and robotics.

What are the most common types of encoders?

Working Principle: Magnetic, Optical, Inductive, or Laser

The working principle of an encoder is the physical phenomenon used to measure the position. It’s essential to choose the working principle that aligns with your application’s unique characteristics and requirements.

Magnetic Encoders

  • These encoders rely on the interaction between magnets and magnetic sensors to measure position. 
  • They are rugged and ideal for environments with dust, debris, and oil since they don’t rely on delicate optical components.

Which type of encoder is best?

How to select the Right Encoder for Your Process Machinery? : A Comprehensive Guide 3

Optical Encoders

  • Optical encoders employ a light source and sensor to read position markings on a rotating disc. 
  • They provide high precision but are sensitive to environmental conditions, making them more suitable for cleaner environments.

Inductive Encoders

  • Inductive encoders use changes in inductance to determine position. 
  • They are particularly useful in harsh industrial environments due to their resistance to contamination and temperature variations.

Laser Encoders

  • Laser encoders employ laser beams for incredibly high-resolution measurements. 
  • They are used in applications where micron-level precision is required, such as semiconductor manufacturing.

How do you spec an encoder?

Define Specifications of the Encoder


  • Resolution is a fundamental specification that denotes the smallest detectable movement. In essence, it defines the encoder’s precision. 
  • Higher resolution provides finer accuracy, but it’s essential to strike a balance that meets your needs without overcomplicating the system. 
  • For instance, in a conveyor system, you may not need the same precision as in a scientific instrument.


  • Accuracy is the measure of deviation between the actual position and the position read by the encoder. High-precision applications require encoders with higher accuracy.
  • In applications requiring high precision, such as CNC machining, medical devices, or scientific instruments, accuracy is paramount. However, in less critical applications, a lower level of accuracy may suffice.


  • Repeatability is the measure of an encoder’s ability to consistently report the same position when subjected to identical conditions and movements. 
  • For applications where machinery operates through repeated cycles, like a pick-and-place robot, high repeatability is vital for ensuring that every cycle’s movements are consistent and accurate.


  • In safety-critical applications, consider features like redundancy or compliance with Safety Integrity Level (SIL) standards to minimize risks and ensure operational integrity.


  • The interface of the encoder dictates how it communicates with your control system. Ensure compatibility with your system, whether it’s analog, digital, or employs fieldbus protocols.
  • The choice of interface should facilitate smooth integration into your existing control system.


  • The physical dimensions of the encoder should be compatible with the available space in your machinery. 
  • Ensure that the encoder fits within the designated area without interfering with other components.

Environmental Factors


  • Some environments may subject the encoder to extreme temperatures, either very hot or very cold. Ensure the chosen encoder can operate within these temperature ranges without degradation.


  • High humidity environments can lead to condensation, which can be detrimental to certain encoders. Choose an encoder with appropriate protection if humidity is a concern.

IP Rating

  • The IP rating indicates the encoder’s resistance to dust and water ingress. For environments with exposure to dust or liquids, select an encoder with the appropriate IP rating, like IP65 or IP66.


  • In applications involving pressure differentials, like those in vacuum chambers or deep-sea equipment, ensure the encoder can withstand the conditions.

Chemical Resistance

  •  If the machinery operates in an environment where exposure to chemicals is likely, consider encoders with chemical resistance.

Decide on Additional Features of the Encoder


  • Self-calibration features can contribute to maintaining accuracy over time, making them an essential consideration for applications where precision is paramount.


  • Diagnostics features, including LED indicators or software tools, facilitate monitoring and maintaining the health and performance of the encoder. 
  • They provide insights into the encoder’s condition, making it easier to detect and address issues before they impact machinery operation.


  • Zeroing capability, which allows you to establish a reference or zero point, is crucial for applications requiring position resets or alignments in the machinery.
  •  It simplifies the calibration process and can be useful in scenarios where the encoder’s starting position needs to be precisely defined.

Range: Single-Turn or Multi-Turn

  • The range of an encoder refers to the number of times it can repeat its output codes. 
  • Single-turn encoders repeat the same output codes with each revolution of the encoder shaft. 
  • Multi-turn encoders, in contrast, produce a unique output for each position up to a certain number of revolutions. The choice between the two depends on the specific needs of your machinery.

Practical Considerations

  • Beyond the technical specifications and features, practical considerations play a significant role in the selection process. 
  • Here are some practical factors to keep in mind:


  • Cost is always a critical factor in any decision. Encoders come in a range of prices, and it’s essential to balance your machinery’s needs with your budget constraints. 
  • Remember that choosing a more expensive encoder with unnecessary features can lead to overinvestment.

Manufacturer and Support

  • The manufacturer’s reputation and reliability are very important. Select a trustworthy supplier that has a history of creating encoders of the highest caliber. 
  • The availability of customer service should also be taken into account, since prompt assistance can be quite helpful when resolving problems or seeking advice.

Installation and Integration

  • Consider the ease of installation and integration of the encoder into your machinery. Some encoders come with mounting options or accessories that simplify the process.
  •  Also, ensure that the chosen encoder is compatible with your existing control system or equipment.

Durability and Longevity

  • Encoders experience continuous deterioration. Selecting an encoder with a lengthy service life and the ability to endure the demands of your machinery’s operation is crucial. 
  • In sectors where output demands are high, durability is extremely important.

Maintenance Requirements

  • Different encoders have varying maintenance requirements. Some require regular cleaning, spare replacement and calibration, while others are more maintenance-free. Be sure to understand the upkeep involved in maintaining the chosen encoder.

Future Expansion

  • Consider whether your machinery may require future expansion or modifications. Choosing an encoder with scalability can make it easier to adapt to changing needs without the need for a complete replacement.

Choosing the Right Encoder for Your Process Machinery

  • Choosing the right encoder for your process equipment is one of the most important things you can do to make sure it works at its best. 
  • Here are some key considerations for each type of encoder to think about that are specific to different types of encoders:

Rotary Encoders

How to select the Right Encoder for Your Process Machinery? : A Comprehensive Guide 4
  • Consider bearingless designs for applications with high shock, vibration, or high-speed requirements.
How to select the Right Encoder for Your Process Machinery? : A Comprehensive Guide 5
  • Choose compact magnetic rotary encoders for space-limited machinery, like robotics.
  • Evaluate environmental conditions; magnetic encoders are more resilient in dirty or oily environments.
  • Decide between incremental (square wave) and absolute (digital word) output based on your needs.
  • Determine the required resolution in cycles per revolution (CPR).
  • Minimize cable lengths and use shielded, twisted-pair cables for clean signals.
  • Decide on an index channel for reference, crucial for power interruption situations.

How do you choose a linear encoder?

Linear Encoders

  • Select the sensor resolution (higher resolution for more accuracy).
  • Choose the appropriate output circuit (line-driver or push-pull) and power supply.
  • Decide if you need an index channel for reference.
  • Ensure the scale length exceeds the measuring range by at least 10 mm on each side.

Magnetic Linear Encoders

  • Assess the type of movement (linear or rotary).
  • Choose the sensor resolution that matches your application.
  • Select the desired output circuit and power supply.
  • Decide if you need an index channel for reference.
  • Ensure accurate alignment of the magnetic scale and scale length.

Sundareswaran Iyalunaidu

With over 24 years of dedicated experience, I am a seasoned professional specializing in the commissioning, maintenance, and installation of Electrical, Instrumentation and Control systems. My expertise extends across a spectrum of industries, including Power stations, Oil and Gas, Aluminium, Utilities, Steel and Continuous process industries. Tweet me @sundareshinfohe

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