Zettlex aims to get design engineers to understand its technology

Written by: Justin Cunningham | Published:

It might not be what one might class the 'sexy' end of engineering, but nonetheless a Cambridgeshire sensor company is getting engineers excited by the possibilities of its encoders.

"We are enabling engineers to see what an encoder can actually do in terms of added functionality in a product," says Martin Wooler, business development manager of Zettlex. "While some see encoders as having a role in specific sectors, we are finding its use in more mainstream products as engineers discover the potential benefits."

The encoder produced by Zettlex – called the IncOder – uses induction to measure the exact position of two moving surfaces. The IncOder uses a unique process of printing circuits on to flexible substrates to enable induction measurements to be made. These are highly accurate and operate with no contact, need for bearings or maintenance.

Applications for its products have grown significantly since the small technology start up began trading in 2004. While encoders measure displacement, this data can be used monitor and record a number of key parameters including weight, vibration, strain, shock, tilt, pressure and even temperature (by expansion). The use of PCBs means that bespoke shapes and sizes can easily be engineered for specific applications.

The company is sure it is offering some unique capabilities and has recently expanded in to a new production facility to fill demand, much of which is coming from overseas. Around 50% of sales are exports with the company expecting this figure to grow to 75% next year. It has also managed to infiltrate the German market will machine builders specifying its IncOder technology over other – well established – encoder manufacturers.

"It is still quite early days and its taken time for us to become known by engineers, and for them to recognise what an encoder can actually do for them," says Wooler. "Certainly we are replacing people like Renishaw, though they will certainly always be around, but we feel we can offer an advantage in some applications over other encoder technologies."

Redundancy is a classic example given by the company. Whereas optical encoders will usually require two components to be part of an assembly, Zettlex is able to integrate two sets of electronics, effectively two sensors, on the same PCB but keep them entirely separate apart from the material encasing them. This approach can be scaled with triple and quadruple redundancy possible as demonstrated on the IncOders that have been successfully used on satellites.

"It's a very elegant solution," says Wooler. "This is fit and forget, and for any engineer it means they can sleep at night. But we are still opening people's minds to the fact you need to be thinking about this at the outset."

The resulting IncOder is produced in a number of standard products in terms of size, speed and accuracy. However, the design of the IncOder makes it inherently customisable with the company continuously overcoming many of the assumed shortcomings of its technical approach and philosophy. An induction based sensor can start to lose position if rotational speed becomes too fast as effectively there is a coil going over another coil which transmits the signal that is then digitally processed.

"We have just done a job for an engine manufacturer where they were getting up to 120,000 rpm," says Wooler. "So, if we know from the outset about certain challenges we can usually design around them. As new markets emerge we would build something for one customer that we can then use in other applications.

"We are on a mission to get design engineers to understand the technology so they can design it in to a system, at the frontend."

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