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 have been a big fan of the combination hot air/solder rework station that I listed in the post. It has served me well. I know one other person that purchased it on my recommendation (he got the slightly upgraded model) and he has been very happy with it.
ersonally I have to put the scope before the analyser, wayyyy before, but that is a personal choice. I have done enough digital boards and have rarely found a need for a logic analyser. The scope, it gets used every single day.
You can find great buys on EBAY for everything. I generally find you are better off with older and trusted versus newer and questionable. I had a quick deliverable that required a power supply outside the range of what I had and I needed something that day. I ended up with a low cost brand .... served its purpose, and other than charging batteries, I don't trust it for much. Digital meter accuracy was terrible after a year, banana jacks cheap, isolation questionable ...... Power supplies and multimeters are two places to never go cheap as you want to debug your creations, not the things powering and measuring them.
The scope I seem to use more than any is a 90's vintage Tek digital. It may be old, but when I need it, it's got more than enough bandwidth and sample speed. Great for catching the smallest glitches. Rated 50V input ... 500V with 10:1 probes, but will take 450V peaks without damage. I also have a 200Mhz analog, but it does not seem to get much use nor the easy to use, but not so fast digital scope. I could see a Picoscope in my future if I can find one at a reasonable price. There is value in the 12bit input and ease of post processing/signal processing.
My Ungar iron that I picked up at an auction along with about 100 tips is finally calling it quits so I am open to suggestions. Weller's are nice, but quickly add up. Maybe Hakko? Any suggestions?
I am in the market for a hot air or IR rework station. There are some interesting low cost ones out there. I don't have to take off enough parts to justify the thousands for a high end unit, but perhaps $250-500 if anyone wants to suggest anything.
Perhaps my favorite piece of equipment is one that people normally do not think of. It is a stereoscopic microscope that again picked up at a sale I think for $100. It gets used at least once every week. It makes it infinitely easier to work on really fine parts. You can't see under a BGA, but for fine pitch QFP, it works out well.
Yes, I personally do almost all my stuff reflowed with my hot air rework station. I usually start working some of the smaller components such as the caps and such. This helps me to see if I need to turn up the temp or not. With the QFN parts, I ensure that I have designed the pads such that there is just a bit of the solder pad that is exposed past the part. This helps me to see if there are any solder bridges or if the part has not yet reflowed. As for stencils, I have not yet needed any stencils, but I am sure that I will get there. I generally just use a small sewing needle to help spread the past as needed.
A year ago, I had to design a 900 MHz receiver, so I designed around the ADRF6601. When I made the PCB, I did not realize how small the part actually was. When I got the finished board and the IC, I asked myself, "How the heck do I mount this part?" I could barely see the part, let alone solder it to the board.
I found a company in Toronto called Proto-Advantage that made stencils and sold special solder for reflow parts. Once I followed all of the steps to mount the part with the solder on the board, I had to figure out how to heat the board enough to melt the solder. I ended up using my kitchen stove. I put a sheet of aluminum on the burner and heated until a piece of solder melted and then placed the PCB on the aluminum plate until I saw the solder flow under the IC.
I am always afraid that I will underheat the PCB causing bad solder joints, or overheat the board destroying the ICs.
Someday, everything will be solder reflow. A good set of tools will be a must!
Sometime the electric company helps: when I was living in Spain a long time ago, sometimes the electric company would let the grounds float up really hight and then zap!!!
Then there was the electrician who was doing a check on a live 450V system, and to save time had the meter hooked up to one set of probes, with another set of probes ready to go, also already connected to 450V when....OK, you can guess. Fortunately the tech was OK after his shocking experience.
As far as scopes go, I'd recommend considering reputable used sources. I've head that some Rigol scopes are "badge-engineered" for at least one major brand. Mine is a Fluke Scopemeter 190 100MHz dual channel model with a really nice set probe set. Somehow it feels more like a DMM than a scope, but its isolated channels are pretty handly since I often use it for troubleshooting differential encoder signals.
A couple years ago I got a chance at ESC West to play with the then-new R&S scopes, and all I can say is WOW! Of course, those are in a different price range...
This is too true. In one of my high school physics classes, our teacher had a very tiny, hand-crank, AC generator. The demonstration was to have you hold the ends of the output and then have him crank slowly. It showed the muscles in your arms contracting, and causing your hand to grab the electrode tighter. Hence the problem with grabbing onto an AC voltage source in that once you grab, it may be difficult to let go.
On a side note, I love the innocent curiosity of kids. How you describe the way you though an electric motor works is just very interesting. I love it.
I built a record-player turntable with my meccano set. I had this idea that motors worked by the electricity in the wires brushing past a rotating shaft, something like a water wheel. Plugged the wires into a 220VAC outlet...
Afterthought: Fortunately I survived. Parents, teach your children well. If your child shows an interest in electricity, or any scientific study, teach them that playing with electricity can be worse than playing with matches.
It is surprising how many electronics types had some contact with mains electricity as kids. Mine was with a meccano-type construction set and I discovered the axles fitted very nicely in those holes in the wall (then round-pin british sockets). I reckon it gives you an affinity with electricity for the rest of your life :-)
@Zeeglen....very timely advice....a retailer I use has some ATTEN scopes at what seem like give-away prices and I had thought about splashing out on one (even give-away prices require some thought on my part....) but you've persuaded me to hang onto my money for now. I'll buy another Lotto ticket......
@Adam...that's often true, and that's the reason retailers here want GST levied on all imports. I can give you another example. Some time ago I wanted some small Ziplok plastic bags for storing bits in...my wife also wanted some for her beading supplies. It turned out cheaper to order them from HongKong than to get them anywhere else.....crazy really.... Labour costs are not that much more here than in the US I think, so how come something costs twice as much here? Software is another example.....and in many cases there is no physical product involved. Go figure...... Definitely profiteering plays some role in this in some cases....
January 2016 Cartoon Caption ContestBob's punishment for missing his deadline was to be tied to his chair tantalizingly close to a disconnected cable, with one hand superglued to his desk and another to his chin, while the pages from his wall calendar were slowly torn away.122 comments