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ask make potentiometer Ask MAKE: Continous rotation potentiometer?

Paul asks:

I’m a museum educator, and working on an exhibit where I want to have a knob that you can spin around to change the color of an exhibit. I thought about using a potentiometer, but I am worried that it might break if people try to turn it too far. Any idea what I could use? Do they make a potentiometer that you can keep turning?

Interesting question. I now know that museums are pretty tough environments, so I understand your concern about it breaking. I can think of three options that might work:

  • Rotary encoder
  • Continuous turn potentiometer
  • Regular potentiometer, with a slip clutch

Using a rotary encoder is the first thing that comes to mind. These devices have a disc with markings in them that spins when their shaft is turned, and have a sensor (usually optical) that detects when the marking move by. Because the sensor part is non-contact, they are generally more robust and can last longer than, say, potentiometers. The downsides to using them is that they are more complicated to use, and have a lower resolution than a potentiomer solution. The Arduino playground has a nice example of using a rotary encoder with a microcontroller.

A continuous turn potentiometer is an interesting option; I actually didn’t know they existed until now. They certainly solve the issue of breaking by turning too far, because they don’t have a hard stop. The only issue that I can think of is that their value will will probably jump suddenly from full on to full off as they make a complete revolution, which may require special handling. Actually, there is a second issue- I don’t know where to buy them! Anyone have some pointers?

If you can’t find a continuous turn potentiometer, a final idea might be to use a regular potentiometer, but connected indirectly through a slip clutch. The idea is to use something that will limit the amount of torque that the user can put on the potentiometer, which will prevent them from turning it too far and breaking it. You can purchase a special mechanical device that will do this, or perhaps even use a loose belt that will slip when the knob is turned too far.

Good luck with your project, and be sure to let us know how it turns out!

Have a different way to do this that you think might work better? Sound off in the comments!

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