Up/down counter circuits are very useful devices. A common application is in machine motion control, where devices called rotary shaft encoders convert mechanical rotation into a series of electrical pulses, these pulses "clocking" a counter circuit to track total motion:
As the machine moves, it turns the encoder shaft, making and breaking the light beam between LED and phototransistor, thereby generating clock pulses to increment the counter circuit. Thus, the counter integrates, or accumulates, total motion of the shaft, serving as an electronic indication of how far the machine has moved. If all we care about is tracking total motion, and do not care to account for changes in the direction of motion, this arrangement will suffice. However, if we wish the counter to increment with one direction of motion and decrement with the reverse direction of motion, we must use an up/down counter, and an encoder/decoding circuit having the ability to discriminate between different directions.
If we re-design the encoder to have two sets of LED/phototransistor pairs, those pairs aligned such that their square-wave output signals are 90o out of phase with each other, we have what is known as a quadrature output encoder (the word "quadrature" simply refers to a 90o angular separation). A phase detection circuit may be made from a D-type flip-flop, to distinguish a clockwise pulse sequence from a counter-clockwise pulse sequence:
When the encoder rotates clockwise, the "D" input signal square-wave will lead the "C" input square-wave, meaning that the "D" input will already be "high" when the "C" transitions from "low" to "high," thus setting the D-type flip-flop (making the Q output "high") with every clock pulse. A "high" Q output places the counter into the "Up" count mode, and any clock pulses received by the clock from the encoder (from either LED) will increment it. Conversely, when the encoder reverses rotation, the "D" input will lag behind the "C" input waveform, meaning that it will be "low" when the "C" waveform transitions from "low" to "high," forcing the D-type flip-flop into the reset state (making the Q output "low") with every clock pulse. This "low" signal commands the counter circuit to decrement with every clock pulse from the encoder.
This circuit, or something very much like it, is at the heart of every position-measuring circuit based on a pulse encoder sensor. Such applications are very common in robotics, CNC machine tool control, and other applications involving the measurement of reversible, mechanical motion.