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 don't need you to get me into my workshop Adam.... Just need to get it sorted out so I have some space to do things. I strip a lot of old boards - its a good way to get a lot of high quality components very cheaply - but my workbench tends to get full of said components and other stuff I'm working on.
My first breadboard (now almost 40 years old) was in a metal case and only had a power supply inside - +/-5 and +/- 12. Since then I have made a couple of others which have simpler power supplies but also have LEDs and sometimes a couple of frequencies derived from the fullwave rectified mains (100Hz down to 1Hz) which can be useful. I also made up an R-C decade box which can be quicker than finding a certain R or C in a hurry. But having a big one with everything in one place will be great.
If I get it done I'll do a writeup on it so you can see, but don't hold your breath.... :-)
If this has gotten one person out to work in their shop, then I feel that it was a success. I hope to see what you might come up with. Also, I think that the shed might be safe from people putting other stuff in it that might crowd out actual working going on. I have found that somehow garages always get filled up and not with the stuff that you want.
You might look into the Red Pitaya. It looks like it is going to be a very nice tool. It is more expensive than some of the Analog tools that you mention, but it should be just as capable and then some.
David - I'd like one of the big magnifying lamps. Instead, I just have a pair of diopter 4 reading glasses. Those, a bright light and a pair of fine point tweezers have allowed me to hand solder down to 0402 passives.
@Adam, Duane - Speaking of desk lamps, one with a magnifier is great when age and decrepitude are taking their toll. I have one with a regular bulb on the side, but am thinking of modifying it (or getting another one) with LEDs round the lens for more even lighting. They're great when ou're working with SMD components and other small fiddly stuff.
I got a student version of LabView and with it NI's MyDAQ - similar thing to the Analog Discovery but with far less bandwidth - I think the scope is 200 KSPS so it only goes up to about 40 KHz max - pretty hopeless for anything serious. however it is fairly versatile - DMM and 2-channel audio sig gen on board, and the instruments it comes with are not bad. I've asked about the Analog Discovery in Aussie but no one seems to have it, especially at the student price.
@Adam...just writing about it has got me fired up a bit to do something. My workshop is in the last 5 feet of my garage and until recently I could hardly move there, however I just got a new shed, so can move some of my stuff out there and get a bit more space to actually DO something....
As you say, having stuff like switches, LED, pots etc on-board (I suppose that should really be just off-board?) saves a lot of time when you need them.
I don't think weight is an issue; a breadboard should be fairly solid so it does not move when you're trying to insert wires or connect scope probes, etc. And making one up yourself is very satisfying AND you can get it just how you want.
Lasty, I've been commenting on everyone else's comments but I gotta say this is a great column Adam, and judging by the number of comments I'm not the only one who thinks so - many thanks!