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August 31, 2023

Load Cells: From Basics to Applications - Types, Operations, and Use Cases

Engineering Load Cells
Limited - Load Cell Courtesy/


Step onto any household or commercial weighing scale, and suddenly your weight magically appears in neat digital numbers. But how does a simple platform know exactly how much you weigh down to a tenth of a pound or kilogram?

The secret lies in a compact but powerful device called a load cell.

Load cells are the unsung heroes of scales and weighing systems. These small components convert the force of an object's weight into the electrical signals that generate those digital readings. When you step on a scale, load cells sense the downward pull of gravity on your mass and instantly transform it into easy-to-read numbers.

Load cells are incredibly precise and able to detect minute differences in weight. This makes them invaluable for scientific and industrial applications where accuracy is critical.

So, the next time you step on a scale, take a moment to appreciate the load cell technology that allows your weight to be measured flawlessly.

What is a Load Cell?

A load cell is a transducer that converts force into an electrical signal. The purpose of a load cell is to provide a measurement of force or weight. Load cells work by measuring the deformation of an elastic element caused by an applied force. The most common type of load cell uses a strain gauge as the sensing element.

There are several common designs of load cells using strain gauges. A single-point load cell has the force applied to a single point on the cell. An S-type load cell has the force applied axially along the length of the cell.

A button load cell has a disc shape with the force applied perpendicular to the surface. Column load cells have a column shape with axial force. Beam load cells have a bending beam that deforms under an off-center transverse force.

The elastic element of a load cell is usually made of alloy steel or aluminum. The strain gauges are bonded to the elastic element in a Wheatstone bridge circuit arrangement.

This allows temperature compensation and maximizes sensitivity. The bridge output is amplified by a signal conditioner and converted to the desired output signal.

Types of Load Cells

Load cells are transducers that convert force into an electrical output. There are several types categorized by their construction, method of operation, or output signal.

Hydraulic load cells
Hydraulic load cells use an internal fluid and measure weight based on changes in pressure. As force increases, the fluid is compressed and pressure rises. Hydraulic cells have a linear output unaffected by temperature.

Pneumatic load cells
Pneumatic load cells operate on a force balance principle using multiple dampener chambers for accuracy. They have an elastic diaphragm attached to the weighing platform.

When an object is placed on the cell, pressurized gas balances the weight. The gas needed determines the weight. Pneumatic cells are explosion-proof and unaffected by temperature.

Strain gauge load cells
Strain gauge load cells are the most common type with high capacity ranges. They use strain gauges that change resistance when under stress or strain. The resistance change is proportional to the strain, providing a linear output convertible to force and weight values.

Canister load cells
Canister load cells are compact, cost-effective cells for single or multiple weighing applications. They are sealed, water resistant, and able to withstand harsh environments. Canister cells are good for axial compression weighing of tanks, hoppers, and vehicles.

Compression load cells
Compression load cells measure pushing force along one axis using a strain gauge. They work well in limited space with excellent stability. Tension load cells conversely measure pulling force.

Shear beam load cells
Shear beam or bending beam load cells measure compressive forces and use a straight block fixed on one end and loaded on the other. Low capacity bending cells are used in scales and tension applications.

Capacitive load cells
Capacitive load cells use capacitance to store and measure an electrical charge between two plates. Distance between the plates changes with applied load, indicating the weight. Low capacity cells are used for medical and retail applications. However, higher capacity cells work for industrial uses.

Micro load cells
Micro load cells use piezo-resistivity, where resistance changes with applied load, causing output voltage change. Multi-axis cells measure forces in multiple directions using multiple strain gauge bridges. High capacity cells handle extreme loads like rocket thrust. However, specialty cells work underwater or in space.

Pin load cells
There are also pin load cells, pancake cells, dynamometer cells, single point cells, S beam cells for under 50 lbs, and more.

Load cell types vary based on capacity needs, environment, output requirements, and measurement application. Understanding the range of options allows the selection of the optimal cell type for each unique weighing need.

How Do Load Cells Work?

The core operating principle behind most load cells is the strain gauge. A strain gauge consists of a flexible, thin conductor arranged in a serpentine pattern on a thin backing.

When the gauge is stretched or compressed, the conductor deforms, causing its electrical resistance to change proportional to the strain. Strain gauges provide an inexpensive and reliable method to precisely measure deformation.

Strain Gauge Arrangement in Load Cells
In a load cell, one or more strain gauges are bonded to the load-bearing element. This is usually a metal beam, column, or other structure that deforms slightly under an applied force. The gauges are wired into a Wheatstone bridge circuit.

When the load element deforms, the strain gauges stretch or compress, unbalancing the bridge circuit. This produces a small electrical output signal proportional to the load.

Compensating for Temperature
The strain gauge Wheatstone bridge is set up to be temperature compensated. This means that when temperature changes cause the resistances in the circuit to drift, the output remains stable.

Temperature compensation uses matched gauge resistances and strategic placement to cancel out thermal effects.

Optimizing Load Cell Sensitivity
To maximize sensitivity, strain gauges are bonded in specific orientations and positions to match areas of maximum strain on the load element.

The orientation of the gauges with respect to the load direction also improves output. Bridge completion resistors may be added to boost the output signal.

Amplifying the Load Cell Output
The minute electrical output from the Wheatstone bridge is amplified by an instrumentation amplifier or other circuit. This amplifies the signal to measurable levels, usually in the millivolt or volt range. The amplifier gain is set based on the full scale load cell rating.

Applying Signal Conditioning
Signal conditioning optimizes the load cell output for further processing. This may include filtering to remove noise or unwanted frequencies. Linearization compensates for non-linearities in the load cell response. Moreover, calibration constants are applied to scale the output.

Digitizing and Displaying the Signal
The amplified and conditioned analog signal is converted into a digital signal by an analog-to-digital converter.

The digital output can be displayed on a weight indicator, sent to a computer, or used in process control and monitoring systems. The signal is scaled into the desired engineering units such as pounds, kilograms, or newtons.

Applications of Load Cells

Load cells are widely used for measurement and monitoring applications across many industries. Here are some of the major applications of load cells:

Weighing Scales
One of the most common uses of load cells is in weighing scales. Load cells are used in electronic scales for measuring body weight, food items, luggage, and more. High precision load cells are used for weighing gold, diamonds, chemicals and other high value items.

Load cells provide accurate and repeatable weight measurements for scales used in homes, retail stores, laboratories, and industries.

Industrial Weighing Systems
Heavy duty load cells are used in systems for weighing trucks, tanks, silos and conveyor belts in factories, warehouses, ports and mines.

Multiple load cells are mounted under platforms, hoppers and vessels to determine weights and monitor loads. This data helps optimize logistics, prevent overloading, and track inventory. Load monitoring enables automated filling, batching and mixing processes.

Force Measurement
Load cells are used along with instrumentation for material testing and measurement of forces. Tension, compression, peeling, and shear forces are quantified using different types of load cells.

This data is critical for testing the strength and endurance of materials and components used in construction, aerospace, automotive, and other industries.

Process Control and Automation
In manufacturing and processing industries, load cell-based weighing systems provide feedback signals for controlling filling, batching, mixing, and distribution operations.

By monitoring weight, load cells help achieve accuracy and consistency in production. Moreover, load monitoring also enables automation of material handling processes.

Medical Applications
Specialized load cells are used in medical devices for rehabilitation, physiotherapy, and research. Load cells measure forces exerted by different body parts during movement.

This helps evaluate performance, improve techniques, and prevent injuries in athletes. Load cells also enable automated drug delivery in infusion pumps.

In summary, load cells have become indispensable for measurement and control across industries. From heavy industrial loads to precision weighing, load cells enable automation, improve quality, and provide vital data for research and testing applications.

Take Away

Load cells are versatile force transducers with applications across many industries. From large industrial scales to precision laboratory equipment, load cells enable accurate weight measurements and force monitoring.

The data from load cell systems allows for process automation, quality control, material testing and more. With continued advancement in load cell technology and instrumentation, even more applications will benefit from precise and reliable force measurement.

Manufacturers like ATO offer a range of high-quality load cells for industrial automation and control systems. By working directly with end-users, ATO provides technical guidance and cost-effective solutions tailored to your weighing and force measurement needs.

This content was published as part of a marketing partnership between PhillyVoice Media and Bizitron.’s newsroom and editorial staff were not involved in the creation of this content.