What is an encoder?

What is an encoder and how can it be used in motion control applications? In this post we’ll cover some encoder basics. First up, the definition:

An encoder is a sensor that translates physical motion into electrical data. That data can be used by a control device to determine speed, acceleration and position.


Encoders come in a variety of configurations, but they all translate physical motion into an electric signal that can be interpreted by a motion control system.

Encoders can track two different kinds of motion. Linear encoders track motion in a straight line. Rotary encoders track changes in shaft rotation and are often attached to motors.

Encoders can be found in all types of machinery in numerous industries, including solar, additive manufacturing (also known as 3D Printing), aerospace, robotics, medical, and textile manufacturing — to name a few. A lot of times, you’ll even find encoders built into motors you buy from electronics parts distributors and catalogs.

Looking for a few examples of how encoders can be used?

  • A 3D printer may use multiple encoders to track the position of the print head. The information from the encoders can then be sent back to the motion control system so it can verify that the print head is in the correct position to print the desired object.

  • A delta robot uses a series of motors to control the position of the arms. Some kind of encoder is most likely attached to each motor. The data from each encoder is used to understand the shaft rotation on each motor, which impacts the position of the end effector—the robot’s “hand.”

  • An automated assembly line could use rotary encoders to track motion of a conveyor belt system. With an encoder attached to a motor that moves the belt, the shaft rotation and total revolutions could be used to extrapolate the distance an object on the conveyor traveled.

So, if you are looking to track speed, acceleration or position of any part of a mechanical system, an encoder might be just what you need.

We offer a wide variety of encoders on our website. If you have any questions, or need help finding the right one for your project, don’t hesitate to contact us. Our customer service and tech support teams are more than happy to help you find the right encoder for your application.

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     Published 3/22/2021 in Blog