An Introduction to Load Cells

Load cells are transducers that have the ability to convert force into electrical output that can be measured. While there are several different types of load cells, strain gage-based load cells tend to be the most widely used.

Aside from some laboratories that still use precision mechanical balances, strain gage load cells control the weighing industry. When hygiene and intrinsic safety are importance, pneumatic load cells are used. In remote locations, hydraulic load cells tend to be favored since a power supply is not required. Accuracies between 0.03 and 0.25 percent full scale can be expected with strain gage load scales. These types of load cells are suitable for virtually all types of industrial operations.

The History of the Load Cell

Prior to the rise and popularity of strain gage-based load cells, mechanical lever scales ruled the world. Mechanical scales have the ability to weigh a variety of things, including pills, railroad cars and many things in between. As long as they are properly maintained and calibrated, they can weigh these things accurately and reliably. The scales tend to either use a weight balancing mechanism or they will detect the force by using mechanical levers. The earliest sensors included pneumatic and hydraulic designs.

In 1843, Sir Charles Wheatstone, an English physicist, devised a bridge circuit that had the ability to measure electrical resistances. This bridge circuit is best suited for measuring changes in resistance that happen in strain gages. While the very first bonded resistance wire strain gage was created within the 40s, it never become economically or technically viable until today’s electronics were able to catch up with new technology. Since then, strain gages have thrived as both stand-alone load cells as well as mechanical scale components.

Operating Principles of Load Cells

As a general rule, load cells are distinguished by the way that they detect weight (compression, bending, tension, shear, etc.) or the type of output signal that they generate (hydraulic, pneumatic, electric).

Hydraulic load cells are considered force balance devices and will measure weight by the chance in pressure of filling fluid internally. When looking at a rolling diaphragm type load cell, the load or force acting on the head will be transferred to a piston that will then compress the fluid that is confined within the elastomeric diaphragm chamber. The pressure of the fluid will rise as the force increases. This pressure can be transmitted for control or remote indication or locally indicated. Output tends to be linear and generally unaffected by the level of filling fluid or its temperature.

As long as the cells have been installed and calibrated properly, the accuracy is within 0.25% full scale – and sometimes even better. Due to the fact that the sensor contains no type of electric components, it is suitable for hazardous operations. These load cells generally include bin, tank and hopper weighing. The tank weight needs to be obtained by finding one cell at every point of support and then adding their outputs. This is to ensure optimal accuracy.

Pneumatic load cells tend to also operate on the same type of principle (force balance). These load cells utilize several dampener chambers in order to create a higher accuracy than hydraulic load cells. With some of the designs, the first chamber is utilized as a tare weight chamber. These types of load cells can be utilized to measure small weights when safety and cleanliness are vital. The benefit to the pneumatic load cell is that it is insensitive to variations in temperature changes and virtually explosion proof. In addition, these cells do not contain any fluids that have the ability to contaminate the operation if a ruptured diaphragm were to occur. The disadvantage to these cells include the need for air or nitrogen that is regulated, dry and clean as well as a slow speed of response.

Strain-gage load cells can convert the load that is acting on them into electrical signals. The actual gauges are usually bonded either onto a structural member or a beam, which then deforms when there is applied weight. As a general rule, there are four strain gages that are used at one time in order to obtain optimal sensitivity and temperature compensation. Two of them are in tension, while the other two are in compression, and they are wired to compensation adjustments. When there is applied weight, the strain will change the electrical resistance in proportion of the actual load. While the strain-gage cells increase in accuracy and lower their overall costs, other types of load cells fade into obscurity.

Selecting the Appropriate Load Cell for Your Individual Application

  • Compression Load Cells – These types of load cells consist of an integral button design and are best suited for mounting when there is restricted space. They are well known for their long-term stability.
  • Compression/Tension Load Cells – These load cells are ideal for situations where loads may go from compression to tension and vice versa. They are also great for environments where the space is restricted. Thanks to their threaded ends the load cells are easily installed.
  • S-Beam Load Cells – These load cells get their name from their S shape. Under either compression or tension, these load cells can provide an output and applications include hoppers, tank level as well as truck scales. They offer impressive side load rejection.
  • Platform and Single Point Load Cells – These load cells are primarily used with industrial and commercial weighing systems. Regardless of a load’s position on the platform, these cells have the capability of producing accurate readings.
  • Bending Beam Load Cells – These cells are ideal for tank weighing, multiple load cell applications and industrial process control. They offer a low-profile construction, which makes them best suited for restricted areas.
  • Canister Load Cells – These load cells are ideal with both single and multi-weighing processes. Many of them consist of an all stainless-steel design. In addition, they are usually hermetically sealed for wet areas and wash-downs.
  • Low Profile Load Cells – These types of cells are very similar to that of the tension/compression and compression load cells. They feature female threads and mounting holes that ensure an easy installation. They are often used for in-line force monitoring and weighing research.