Simply put, an encoder is a sensing device that provides feedback. Encoders convert motion to an electrical signal that can be read by some type of control device in a motion control system, such as a counter or PLC. The encoder sends a feedback signal that can be used to determine position, count, speed, or direction. A control device can use this information to send a command for a particular function. For example:
In a cut-to-length application, an encoder with a measuring wheel tells the control device how much material has been fed, so the control device knows when to cut.
In an observatory, the encoders tell actuators what position a moveable mirror is in by providing positioning feedback.
On railroad-car lifting jacks, precision-motion feedback is provided by encoders, so the jacks lift in unison.
In a precision servo label application system, the encoder signal is used by the PLC to control the timing and speed of bottle rotation.
In a printing application, feedback from the encoder activates a print head to create a mark at a specific location.
With a large crane, encoders mounted to a motor shaft provide positioning feedback so the crane knows when to pick up or release its load.
In an application where bottles or jars are being filled, feedback tells the filling machines the position of the containers.
In an elevator, encoders tell the controller when the car has reached the correct floor, in the correct position. That is, encoder motion feedback to the elevator's controller ensures that elevator doors open level with the floor. Without encoders, you might find yourself climbing in or out of an elevator, rather than simply walking out onto a level floor.
On automated assembly lines, encoders give motion feedback to robots. On an automotive assembly line, this might mean ensuring the robotic welding arms have the correct information to weld in the correct locations.
In any application, the process is the same: a count is generated by the encoder and sent to the controller, which then sends a signal to the machine to perform a function.