For any beginners out there, here's a list of tools and equipment I have found to be important when building a personal prototyping laboratory, along with some of the mistakes I've made along the way.
When I first started to become involved with electronics, I realized that it would be important to invest in a set of tools that would help me build my projects. However, I had lots of questions about which tools to purchase and -- since I was on a limited budget -- which pieces of equipment should I acquire first.
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So, for any beginners out there, the following is my list in order of what I have found to be important along with some of the mistakes I've made along the way:
A location: I would recommend first finding a place where you can put all your tools in a somewhat organized fashion. For quite some time, I made the mistake of trying to have things here and there around the house. I found that I would frequently misplace things and -- instead of spending time working on a project -- I would spend time looking for the tool that I needed. The location in your house does not need to be big, but should be a dedicated space.
A desk or a workbench: This is a fantastic addition. It does not need to be fancy -- it's a place to leave your projects in between your working sessions. I started out with a small card table that was approximately $30 from Walmart. I later upgraded to this workbench from Harbor Freight. (Actually, there are few Harbor Freight items that I would recommend, but this is one of them.) It has four integrated drawers and a hardwood top. I got it on sale for $106 delivered to my door, and it has proved to be a great upgrade.
A computer: How would you perform tasks like programming and PCB layout without a computer? This item is a must. It does not need to be dedicated to electronics design, but you can pick up a cheap laptop or desktop for around $300.
A breadboard: I personally have a very nice integrated breadboard that I was able to pick up for a very reasonable price (approximately $35) from eBay. This is the predecessor to the Global Specialties PB505. As you can tell, I got it for quite the discount. All I needed to do was repair a damaged potentiometer to get my eBay special working.
A soldering iron: I am not talking about one of those $10 Radio Shack "fire starters," but a real, temperature-controlled soldering iron. There are a lot of options out there (including this open-source device), but I would recommend saving up your pennies and getting a combination hot air rework station as well as soldering iron. I purchased the Aoyue 968, which has since been upgraded to the 968 A+. It was about $160 at the time. In fact, I have used the hot air rework station for reflowing my boards more than I have used the soldering iron side. This truly has been a workhorse in my lab.
Logic Analyzer: Diagnostic tools are a must. Before the oscilloscope, I would purchase a logic analyzer. I purchased the open source Open Bench Logic Sniffer for $50 and it has served me well. This tool has been great to be able to see if I am actually communicating what I want over my serial communication lines.
Oscilloscope: Once you have acquired all of the tools noted above, it really is well worth getting an oscilloscope. An oscilloscope is great for looking at issues that are harder to diagnose. It can help you identify issues with a serial communications signal, DAC outputs, and many other areas. The biggest problem is that there are so many choices -- where does one start?
Do you go for analog or digital? Will a $200, 10MHz USB scope do what you want it to do? For a starter oscilloscope, I would say that you can get what you need for 50 to $200. I was able to get an analog, 4-channel, 300MHz, Tek 2465 with two probes for $200. I had to do some eBay shopping to find it, but it has proved to be a very good scope for the money. Right now, I am looking to add a digital scope to my tool kit. For that one, I am looking at the Rigol DS2000 series. The nice thing about this series is that they have a gradient weighted display that makes the screen display the signals in a very similar manner as an analog scope. But they run 800 to $1600, so I am going to have to save up for this item.
Power Supply: All of the above and no power supply? Until now, I've been able to get by with simple "wall warts" and breadboard power supplies that had fixed voltages. I finally was given a dedicated, bench-top power supply by a friend. This power supply is an old analog, dual-output supply that can regulate both voltage and current. This may not be a necessity for many folks, but if the price is right it will make for a very nice addition to your laboratory.
So far, I have spent about $700 on my home electronics workshop. This cost excluded the cost of the computer as I already had one around that I use. Do I think that my workshop is complete? Can you ever have enough tools? Of course not! I do have a few things that are yet on my watch list. As I indicated, I am looking to purchase a DSO (digital sampling/storage oscilloscope), but I would also like to have an arbitrary waveform generator, a small reflow oven, and perhaps even a small pick-and-place machine.
One tool that I am very tempted to get is the new Red Pitaya that is on Kickstarter right now. My only hesitation is that it is only a 125Msp/sec (mega-samples per second) per channel device -- ideally I would like to have a 1Gsp/sec device. The nice thing though, despite the lower sampling rate, is that it has a 14-bit sample depth vs. the standard 8-bit sample depth on most DSO scopes.
Have I missed anything? I am always open to new tools for the workshop. Please let me know in the comments below (I'm sure my wife would appreciate it).
I was just thinking about your Allen Wrenches comment. My favorite type are the ones that are case hardened with an annealed center. The reason being is that when you are working on something that has been in there for 30+ years, it is better for the wrench to be able to twist, than it is to round out the internal wrenching features. With the case hardened surface, the wrench flats will stay intact and will not strip. These types of wrenches are viewed as junk by many, but when you are working on an aircraft engine that is worth $30K, they are a cheap loss compared to potentially damaging the engine casing.
I also use tackle boxes for my modeling supplies. I have one that fits my Dremel tools and their bits, my airbrush, paints, and misc supplies all in one box. Once again, it gets back to having a space for your tools.
I need to get something a little better for my lathes. I am thinking about getting another bench like the one you see in the picture to go on the other side of this one.
So far, I have about $700 into what you see in that picture. I also have about $150 into a small portable lab that I have to do stuff at work. This does not include the cost of the computer. For my portable lab, I would love to add a new convertible laptop similar to the Intel Haswell Reference design, but up until now, it seems that the computer manufacturers are still coming out with their poor concepts instead of something with the advances that Intel showed off. I will wait.
As to the competition, I would love to enter, though it seems that it was indicated that Bloggers for EETimes would not be allowed to enter. I am not sure that I would have many good stories for electronics, but I do have some good mechanical ones. Like tearing into the stock carburetors that were at my grandpas auto repair shop when I was about 6, and then not knowing how to put them back together again. Modifying an airplane so that it replaced a piston engine with a turbine engine, and then clipping 12' off the 35' wingspan. Then rebuilding it after a bug clogged the fuel system and it made an off airport landing.
Would sticking tweezers in a light socket when I was about 3 or 4 count? I was curious and it ended in the teardown of the socket afterwards. I mean, why make tweezers look so much like a plug anyways?!?
No, I have not actually looked at that as a viable option for me, though it may very well be a good option for others. There are two reasons it was not a good fit for my plans. The first is that the "local" maker group is about 45 minutes away. Considering I usually have only about 2-3 hours a day after work that I am home and awake, this would not be practical as I would spend most of my free time traveling. The other advantage of it being in the house is that I get to be with my wife and son as I am working on things. This is an undervalued bonus that many do not consider.
The other reason is that because I tend to be slower than I like with my projects, it would take quite some time for me to build a project, and get use of such a lease. Once I look at the money that would have spent for that lease, I could have then bought the tools for my own workshop. At that point in time, I would rather purchase the tools.
This is just what works for me. I think, though, for a group that has little experience working with certain types of tooling, and short timelines, that such a lease might be good for them as it would provide both mentorship and tooling access as well as potential quick time to market with their device.
What was the total price tag to outfit your lab? And please note that we are currently running Frankensteins Fix, a competition inviting engineers to write about things they have "brought back from the dead" either by repair or redesign and giving away a $3500 Tek scope! Consider entering, think what an awesome addition that would be to your lab!! (And Im betting your wife would really approve!)
Also good thoughts about mixed signal scopes. I guess that would hold true unless the scope connected to an external monitor/computer for displays. You would still be held back by the potential lack of features in the software.
Dang you got me again! I need to post another blog, "The Tools I Already Had from Building Full Scale Airplanes/Model Submarines/Working on Cars". I might need to work on the title though.
I had a Harbor Freight cheapie, but then I put together a tool set to be able to do some playing during lunchtime here at work. Max, perhaps we can pull that one over from MCC. For that kit, I purchased a Meterman PM55. I really like it. It is small, but has a lot of features. You can actually see it there in the upper middle portion of the picture sitting on the electronics workstation. It is red and black.
As you wrote correctly, analysing tools are essential (Besides quality basic tools like soldering iron, pliers and a well lit workplace).
But first I would suggest to buy a digital multi meter (DMM), if you can afford one that also measures capacitance (helps a lot to repair old stuff). It's always the first thing at hand, check power supplies, check current consumption, check diodes/transistors if they are still ok etc.
For the logic analyser (LA) I don't recomend the mixed signal options build into scopes. Often the software lacks standard features going a little beyond the basics and mainly because you really like to have a big screen to analyse 16+ signals.
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