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).
Yeah, I tried to put them in the proper order of how I should have done it.
The point you bring us is also interesting, especially with many of the newer DSO scopes offering some form of logic analyzer add-ons. I think that there is recognition that there is a need to get more from your tools. This is one of the reasons that I like the Red Pitaya concept. I am really on the fence about getting that one. It would replicate some of the tools that I already have, and not quite get me what I want for the DSO. I would get the AWG, though, which I do not currently have. Tempting, very tempting.
Yes, there is a very nice Harbor Freight toolbox that I have at home for my mechanical tools. It also houses some of the tools for my two lathes. The only problem is that my garage is about 50' away from my house, and I am not especially motivated to go out during the winter time to get what I need.
As to working on the kitchen table, yes I did that for quite some time as well. It was always such a pain when I needed to take everything into a room when we would have guests over. I have a very wonderful wife that indulges me with my projects. I try not to take too much advantage of it.
@Aeroengineer (a.k.a. Adam): Another mistake that I made (though some might argue that it would not be a mistake for them) was getting the oscilloscope before the logic analyzer.
Ah ... from your blog it appeared as though you purchased the logic analyzer first. In reality thsi is a tricky one -- as you say, different people would argue for one of the other ... this question might form an interesting discussion in its own right...
@Max: I have to second that... this is a refreshing column, much appreciated by a fellow mechanical engineer like myself!
One thing I would recommend to add would be a microscope -for starters a Dino Lite or equivalent that plugs into USB. For a few hundred dollars, one can also get a old-fashioned benchtop steroscope that comes in handy for many things.
You got me, I only shared one mistake, though not explicitly. I will elaborate. For quite some time, I never had a dedicated space for my tools and projects. This meant that frequently tools would get misplaced, and sometimes completely lost. Thankfully, these were small things like jumper wires, tweezers, and misc parts. Though it would probably be fair to say that I have lost at least ~$100 of small odds and ends over the years.
Another mistake that I made (though some might argue that it would not be a mistake for them) was getting the oscilloscope before the logic analyzer. I fought many hours with a few projects before I knew what a logic analyzer was. I had the oscilloscope, but it was nowhere near as useful as the logic analyzer was to me in debugging some of these problems.
@Adam: A location: I would recommend first finding a place where you can put all your tools in a somewhat organized fashion.
I agree -- this is what I lack at home -- I do most of my electronic projects on the kitchen table -- I do have a corner of the garage for my pottery stuff -- but it's all crammed together -- when I want to do anything I have to spend 30 minutes sorting everything out.
One thing I do have is one of those rolling tool boxes with lots of dwawers in the garage (my wife bought it for me for Christmas) -- that's great for storing all my tools in one place -- as you say, before that, whenever I wanted to do anything I had to waste a lot of time trying to track down the appropriate tools.
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