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Sensor technology

Penny & Giles has supplied every winning F1 championship team since 1986. But how has the company achieved its success in sensor technology?



For more than 50 years, Penny & Giles, a designer and manufacturer of high precision sensing technology, has provided creative solutions for position measurement and control. The company continues to be successful worldwide. Its sensors have also become a benchmark in Formula One (F1). The company was the first position sensor manufacturer to enter motorsport and has supplied every F1 championship winning team since 1986.

Success in motor racing, and especially in F1, depends on tens of thousands of components working together at peak performance under the most extreme operating conditions.

Including approximately 80,000 components in a typical F1 car, there are more than 100 sensors linked to over a kilometre of cable. Of these, position sensors are essential in controlling and monitoring systems that supply information to the team’s race engineers, to help trim tenths of a second off lap times.

Various Penny & Giles products are used by F1 teams including linear variable differential transformers (LVDT), rotary potentiometers and Hall effect rotary and linear sensors. Sensors need to succeed in a two-hour operational race window, in environments where running temperatures may exceed 130°c, with soaks of over 150°c when cars are stationary in the pits or on the starting grid.

For the 2012 season, control and feedback applications for Penny & Giles sensors include gearbox sensing for forward/reverse gear position, select and interlock and barrel position; brake sensing including pad wear and master cylinder; engine and pedal sensing including throttle and pedal positioning; power steering spool and rack position; steering angle and front/rear suspension sensing; and hydraulic reservoir position sensing.

Here, sensors for each application have evolved over the years. Some to reduce size and weight, others to eliminate the noise associated with potentiometer-based technologies.

Penny & Giles undertook the task of designing and developing a replacement for a gearbox sensor that was particularly oversized for its application. Because it was running off a 12Vdc supply, the original sensor also had temperature issues, which made it brittle over time. Penny & Giles engineers analyzed various materials and subsequently re-designed the sensor using an organic polymer thermoplastic with strong mechanical properties at elevated temperatures. This enabled them to reduce the size and weight of the sensor, but also meant it was extremely strong and had a good temperature coefficient.

The team at Penny & Giles also undertook the challenge to reduce the sensors size and to make it lighter and faster. The sensor was re-developed to work from a 5Vdc supply. This enabled them to remove the voltage regulators from within it, further reducing the size and weight of the sensor.Because of the temperatures involved (in excess of 1,000°c) for these applications, many teams use LVDTs. Over the years, these linear sensors have evolved by reducing the case diameter to make them smaller. Many teams now use a 6mm diameter LVDT, which is 25% smaller than those used a couple of years ago and nearly half the diameter of those in use 10 years ago. A smaller LVDT means less material is used to mount them, which provides teams with a weight advantage, as well as improvements in dynamic shock and vibration performance.

Historically, teams have mounted a linear potentiometer on brackets alongside the master cylinder to provide measurement feedback. Penny & Giles has worked closely with manufacturers to integrate a magnet into the push/pull rod and have embedded a Hall effect sensor within the body of the master cylinders. This has eliminated the need for brackets, resulting in a weight reduction.

Linear potentiometers are widely used for pedal sensing applications but these require mounting brackets that increase weight. Penny & Giles engineers have looked at the car’s pedal mechanism and developed a two-piece sensor – using the same principle as Penny & Giles NRH style dual-output ‘non-contact’ rotary position sensor – which is now mounted on the pedal’s natural rotary pivot point. This development has helped to reduce the space envelope and eliminate signal noise associated with track wear on potentiometer-based sensors.

Again, Penny & Giles has seen a shift from potentiometer-based linear sensors – requiring brackets to mount the sensors along the dampers – to Hall effect rotary sensors that, like the pedal-sensing applications, use natural pivot points on the bell cranks.

Another task Penny & Giles has undertaken includes developing a steering angle sensor for a team that had limited space because the sensors would be mounted at the end of the steering column within the nose cone. A miniature Hall effect rotary sensor was developed, which exceeded the team’s expectations regarding space and has proved to be technologically superior to anything used before. This particular move from potentiometer-based technology to non-contact has proved popular and other teams are now testing rotary sensors for similar applications.

It’s not always about Hall effect technology though! For a recent clutch position application one team had been experiencing problems with cross-talk, wear, temperature instability and electrical noise from its Hall effect sensor supplied by another company. A Penny & Giles LVDT was tested and eliminated all these problems.


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