Kitting out an Electronics Lab in 2019

August 26, 2019 Mark Harris

Having moved country multiple times, and having worked at several companies (or divisions of) without a strong electronics engineering team, I’ve had to set up more than a couple of electronics labs for myself and my clients. Some of these have been on very tight budgets, while others I’ve had a couple of million dollars to play with. I’m going to try to cover a range of budgets in this article, so whether you are a hobbyist, a large company/organization looking to expand into cutting edge electronics, or somewhere in between, you will find what you need for setting up a new lab from scratch.

The equipment selected here comes with the following assumptions:

  • You’re primarily working on digital electronics, not radio modules or high-end audio.
  • You’re hand building and reworking prototypes in-house.
  • You’re working with microcontrollers, FPGAs or other digital processors where code and hardware need to be debugged together.

If you’re just getting started in electronics as a hobby, everything on this list might be slightly overkill; it’s a lot of tools and hardware. If you’re designing and building products even if they are only for your own usage, however, I think you’ll find yourself with everything here eventually, even as a hobbyist or an electronics engineering student.

The budget option will be useful for students and hobbyists, but probably doesn’t have the performance, or perhaps ease of use, for a professional. A professional will be more efficient with the mid or upper range of tools, which are more expensive but pay for themselves in labor savings. A serious hobbyist with a little more money to dedicate for a good tool might look at the middle option rather than the budget one. All options are based on what I’d expect to see in the hands of the target audience; the suggestions focus on total performance and capabilities per dollar, including wages where relevant, rather than just trying to spend lots of money (for the higher end options) or spend the least money (for the low-end option).

I’m very hesitant to recommend specific brands, but if I occasionally do so, it is because I have tried many of the competing brands and wouldn’t use anything else. When it comes to testing equipment for example, it’s because the brand is offering the best specifications for the money in that market segment. I generally won’t buy or recommend something just because a specific brand makes it, as I care much more about the right tool for the job.

 

The Absolute Basics

These are the components and tools I feel everyone should have on their desk. Whether you’re working on aerospace components or assembling your first PCB, everything here will apply to you.

Hand Tools

Helping Hands (without a magnifying glass)

Ultra cheap yet incredibly useful. Super handy for holding wires, boards, and components. Opt for the third alligator clips over a magnifying glass. Put heat shrink over the jaws to protect wire insulation and boards.
Buy from: eBay/Amazon/Aliexpress

Stainless Steel ESD Tweezer Set

These make placing small SMT components when soldering or pulling them from the board very easy. A set of these from eBay/Amazon will be cheaper than a single one from an electronics supplier, and you won’t be able to tell the difference between the cheap ones and expensive ones. At a minimum, you want the straight needle pointed (#10) and curved needle pointed (#15 or #17)
Buy from: eBay/Amazon/Aliexpress

Quality Screwdriver Set

Forget the cheap screwdrivers, go straight for Wera Kraftform or Wiha drivers. The quality of the steel and laser etched tips means they last much longer and do less damage to fasteners. If you are working with mains voltages, a quality set of VDE drivers may save your life over a cheap no-name brand set. You can find these at most hardware stores and electronics tools suppliers. When buying, make sure the set goes down to at least size 0, having hex and Torx is very handy too.
Buy from: hardware stores, electronics tool suppliers, electricians suppliers

Quality Plier Set

Once again, forget the cheap options and stick with the German tools like Wera, Wiha, Felo or Knipex. Like screwdrivers, the German tools are going to have better quality steel and better fit of the jaws. If you’re dealing with mains voltages, the quality insulation may save your life. A good set will include needle nose, side cutters, and linesman/combination pliers. You might think if you’re just working on microelectronics, you can skip these, but you’ll be looking for them after a day or two!
Buy from: hardware store, electronics tool suppliers, electricians suppliers

Flush Trim Cutters

When you need to trim a wire soldered to a board, or the leads of through-hole components/connectors nothing beats flush trim cutters. Side cutters like the ones above are handy, but a good pair of flush trim cutters are well worth having. I do mean a good pair – a cheap pair is next to useless. The cutting edges need to be sharp and line up perfectly to cut through heavier connector leads, and the steel needs to be high quality so the cutting edge doesn’t dent. Consider a Weller Xcelite 170MN or a Hakko CHP-170

Buy from: electronics suppliers only.

Mini Needle Nose Pliers

For mini needle nose pliers, you can use whatever is cheapest. It’s handy to have a set of 5-6” (125-150mm) sized pliers with flat jaws. Serrated jaws are handy for brute force, but flat jaws can be more handy for handling components, wires or connectors. For a brand name, consider the Wiha 32752 or Hakko PN-2008.
Buy from: eBay/Amazon/Aliexpress

Wire Strippers/Cutters

If you’re working on a tight budget, the cheap options for strippers/cutters do work. However, they are not as sharp or well-fitting as those from US/German brands. If you have the budget, buy a better set. I prefer the slightly curved handles as pictured because they’re a little more ergonomic.
Buy cheap from: eBay/Amazon/Aliexpress
Buy quality from: electronics component suppliers, electricians suppliers

Precision Hobby Knife

If you’re reworking a board, or find a fault with a board, one of these makes it very easy to cut even a tiny closely spaced trace, or scrape the solder mask off copper to add a component or read a voltage/signal. The cheapest options are just as functional as name brand expensive ones, but can be uncomfortable after long periods of use. Buy a box of spare blades as they get dull reasonably quickly.
Buy from: craft stores, hardware stores, electronics suppliers, Amazon/eBay, HobbyKing

Hot Glue Gun

Hot glue is the glue of the gods as far as I’m concerned. It bonds almost anything to anything else, it’s great for strain relief on cables, and it can be easily removed with a couple of drops of isopropyl alcohol. You’ll want a high temperature 12mm/½” glue gun, not a little craft gun. The 3M Polygun series are incredible guns, but they are very expensive. If you’re on a budget, a power tool brand glue gun from your local hardware store is a good option.

Buy cheap from: hardware store, Amazon/eBay, power tool suppliers

Buy quality from: electronics suppliers, mechanical engineering suppliers

Magnifying Lamp

Often you will need a bit of extra light, or to look at a small part/read markings on an IC up close. Magnifying lamps will give you both of these options! You can get them with a heavy base or with a clamp mount (or both). LED options are most prevalent now. If you can, try to get a daylight color temperature.

Buy from: craft stores, electronics suppliers, Amazon/eBay, HobbyKing

Digital Calipers

You’ll be surprised how often you use calipers once you own them. If you’re integrating electronics into anything or doing anything even remotely mechanical, calipers are invaluable. If you have the budget, get a set of 200mm/8” Mitutoyo calipers. If you don’t have the budget, any other option is equally as bad/good. Cheap options won't slide/lock as easily, don’t remember the zero position well, may not read well when opening/closing jaws fast, don't have as hard steel on the jaws, and go through batteries very fast. That being said, I have a set of Mitutoyo and about 6 sets of cheap ones.

Buy cheap from: eBay/Amazon/HobbyKing
Buy Mitutoyo from: Mitutoyo directly, McMaster in USA/Cromwell in Europe, metrology suppliers, some electronics suppliers

ESD Mat

ESD mats are not cheap, but are well worth using. If you’re in an area with low humidity or high altitude, an ESD mat is mandatory. Damp and high humidity areas on the other hand have much lower ESD risk. ESD mats that are rated for high temperatures make fantastic soldering mats: they are slightly soft and grippy, and make finding components you drop easy. Buy one with an integrated wrist strap and ground hookup options rather than just a bare mat.

Buy cheap from: eBay/Amazon
Buy quality from: electronics tools suppliers, electronics component suppliers.

Soldering Station

There’s a vast difference in the quality of soldering experience between a budget soldering station/iron and a Weller. I can’t recommend enough that you jump straight to a quality Weller soldering iron. Even having used the popular Hakko, I can ascertain that the speed of heat transfer and thermal control of the Weller is superior, and that the pen grip stays cool to the touch after hours of soldering. Working on a PCB with 0402 or smaller components connected to a large ground plane very quickly determines the quality of a soldering station. Most stations will sit there warming up the little tiny pad a little bit as the Weller takes the component off in under a second. The Weller is expensive, but none of the half dozen or so top competitors I’ve tried even come close.

If you don’t want to buy the Weller, you will want at least a 60W station with interchangeable tips for which you can purchase replacements easily. When looking at swappable tips, the shorter the tip extends past the iron, the better. A short tip means the tip will be as close to the temperature sensor and heat source as possible, so it will not cool down as rapidly and the temperature the station is set to will more closely match the actual temperature on the tip when working on thicker wire or PCBs with large ground planes.

Budget

WE1010 70W

Quality

WT1012 95W base 80W pen

Best

WX1010 200W base 120W pen

I don’t personally feel the WE1010 is as worth getting as the WT1012. The WX1010 is a great option for professionals who are working on PCBs with large ground planes or components with large thermal mass. Both the WT and WX have a large range of pens you can buy separately depending on your requirements in the future. The options above will suit most uses though.

The WT1012 accepts the LT series tips, whereas the WX1010 accepts XNT series tips. Generally, I would not recommend the round/conical tips as it’s harder to get good heat transfer with them due to the limited contact area. The chisel tips come in a wide range of sizes, out of which the 1.6mm, 2.4mm and 3.2mm options are my most used. I happily solder 0402 components with the standard 2.4mm chisel.

You’ll also want some accessories for soldering:

Fume Extractor

While soldering, you will create a plume of flux vapor, which a fume extractor/adsorber will collect, saving you from destroying your lungs. Look for one that can be tilted, such as the ones from Weller and their clones. The blue solid plastic ones like those from Hakko and their clones are not very practical. If you are in an office, a Weller Zero Smog and options from competing brands are much better for your health and safety.

Buy from: electronics suppliers, eBay/Amazon/Aliexpress

Loctite Henkel (Multicore in USA) 97SC C511 Solder Wire

Once you find a good brand of solder that flows smoothly, doesn’t make a mess, and gives you excellent joints, you don’t easily switch to something else. A spool of C511 solder isn’t cheap, but it offers amazing quality. I’ve been forced to use cheap solder in the workplace before, and usually end up taking in my Loctite solder to use. Some cheap solder flows like mud or has flux that makes a huge mess on your board. C511 is a no-clean solder that is an RoHS compliant Tin/Silver/Copper blend. You can get it in a range of diameters; I’ll typically have a roll of 0.56mm and a roll of 1.63mm on hand. The 0.56mm is good for fine pitch components, and the 1.63mm for tinning thick wires or large components.
Buy from: electronics suppliers

MG Chemicals Tip Tinner

You can find that tip tinner is cheaper from no-name brands, but it’s not as effective as what MG Chemicals make, and may damage your expensive soldering tips. When your tip starts to build up some black deposits, tip tinner can restore your tip to an as good as new condition, thus making soldering faster and more effective.
Buy from: electronics suppliers

Aven Tools Solder Sucker Desoldering Pump

A solder sucker is very useful if you’re trying to remove/replace a through hole component or connector. I’ve used the little metal barrel ones, but found they don’t always suck enough. If you want a tool that really sucks, get the Aven Tools solder sucker, which is about the same price as other pens, but has a very wide body/piston and a super powerful spring with long piston travel. There are two models, a smaller one and a giant one (the 17535). Get the giant one!

Buy from: electronics suppliers

Solder Wick

I’ll admit I’m not a huge fan of solder wick, because with a well-tinned soldering pen tip, I can generally just wipe excess solder away. However, some people find it useful for flatting a pad for a new DPAK (TO-263) or any similarly large flat package when reworking, and others for cleaning up IC pins. I’d generally have a roll of 2mm wide and 3mm wide solder wick on my desk. As long as it’s got no-clean flux, you can’t go too wrong.

Buy from: electronics suppliers

MG Chemicals 836-P No-Clean Flux Pen

Again, we’re going for a specific brand name/model. I’ve used a wide variety of flux pens and a good pen can make reworking a part easy, meanwhile a bad pen just makes a mess. The 836-P no-clean flux pen is the cleanest and most effective pen I’ve used since Kester discontinued theirs. A flux pen is like a big chisel tip sharpie for flux. A quick dab on even a high strand count 8AWG wire can make it wet out fully in seconds instead of being a battle. When reworking a board, it can rapidly clean up fine pitch components where solder is bridging pins.

Buy from: electronics suppliers, Amazon

Replacement Brass Wool

Forget a wet sponge, brass wool is a much better option for cleaning a soldering pen tip. Better quality soldering pen stands all come with brass wool as standard. These will last a long time if you rotate them around regularly, but they do die eventually, making it worth having a spare or two on hand for when that happens.

Buy from: electronics suppliers, eBay/Amazon/Aliexpress, HobbyKing

You might notice that for soldering, I get very specific about particular part numbers. This is from over a decade of trial and error, and is something you’ll find yourself doing once you find the perfect solution and stick with it. I fortunately had the opportunity to try many products and figure out what works and what does not. The aforementioned suggestions are the products that have worked for me over the years, and I can’t work without them.

Hot Air Station

After recommending one of the most expensive professional soldering stations, you might be a bit worried at my recommendation for a hot air rework station. Don’t worry, I actually prefer one of the cheapest options on the market! Unlike a solder pen that needs to directly transfer heat reasonably precisely and powerfully into components, a hot air station just needs to heat up air and blow it at your board, wire, or heat shrink. The 858D series hot air rework stations are affordable and allow for precise control over temperature and airflow velocities. If you need to warm up a section of the board, or even reflow the solder completely, the 858D will do the job. It’s also a much better option for heat shrink than a lighter, or a heat gun, with no temperature control.

ATTEN (and clones) 858D/858D+ Hot Air Station

Cheap and effective. There’s not much reason to spend more money than an 858D.

Buy From: eBay/Amazon/Aliexpress.

 

Prototyping Supplies

Whether you’re just getting started in electronics or are designing complex products, building out the project, or at least sections of it, on a breadboard is usually a good idea. If you’re writing firmware, you can ensure all your functionality works prior to committing to a PCB design. 

I’m not generally a fan of kits of electronics parts, as I don’t find them very applicable to my designs. However, I do find having a range of through-hole resistors, LEDs and capacitors handy. I haven’t used a through-hole resistor on a production PCB in the past decade, but they are very handy for breadboards and being able to fix mistakes on a prototype PCB. The LEDs might seem like an odd choice, but you can use them on a breadboard or solder them to pretty much any logic line to get a quick visual indication of what state it is in if the line can handle the current draw.

Ribbon Wire

Bulk ribbon wire is really handy to have. You can peel off a single wire strand, or multiple ones at once, to get multi-colored wire for connecting boards or components together. It’s also an incredibly cost-effective way to get a lot of wire, as wide ribbons don’t cost a lot more than ribbons with just a few conductors. Buy the widest, most colorful ribbon you can find.

Buy From: electronics suppliers, eBay/Amazon/Aliexpress.

Stranded Wire Set

While ribbon wire is fantastic, sometimes you need a long length of just one color. Box sets of stranded wire can be very handy for connecting up prototypes/breakout boards. You can find them on spools in boxed sets as pictured, or in just lengths of wire. 22AWG or 24AWG sizes are the most practical and useful for the majority of projects.

Buy from: automotive suppliers, eBay/Amazon, Sparkfun, Adafruit, Active Tech

Solderless Breadboard

If you’re prototyping with through-hole components or breakout boards, a solderless breadboard will save you a lot of effort. You can buy mini ones, but you’ll find even the big (800+ point/60+ row) ones too small fairly quickly, so consider getting two or more.

Buy from: electronics suppliers, eBay/Amazon/Aliexpress, Sparkfun/Adafruit

Breadboard Power Supply

Sometimes you don’t want to deal with a lab power supply and just need an easy 3.3v or 5v source for your breadboard project. These cheap power supplies plug directly into the power rails of a breadboard and give you the option of 3.3v or 5v on each rail. You can power them with a USB cable or a barrel jack.

Buy from: eBay/Amazon/Aliexpress, Sparkfun/Adafruit

Crimped Ribbon Jumper Wires/Hookup Wires

Ribbon wires with crimped ends are amazing for hooking things up to breadboards, or accessing pins on 2.54mm/0.1” spaced headers. You’ll want to get them in each flavor – male to male, male to female, and female to female – so you are covered for all eventualities.

Buy from: eBay/Amazon/Aliexpress, Sparkfun/Adafruit.

Heat Shrink Tubing Kit

If you’re soldering wires together, you need a way to cover the join. A cheap heat shrink tubing kit makes life easy by giving you multiple colors and diameters in a small box.

Buy from: eBay/Amazon/Aliexpress

Budget Electrolytic Capacitor Assortment Kit

If you’re working on a breadboard or need a bit of extra capacitance to stabilize a voltage on a prototype board, these kits give you a range of options close to hand without breaking the bank. The capacitors are typically poor tolerance ones, and don’t have a good lifespan, but that doesn’t matter for prototyping!

Buy from: eBay/Amazon/Aliexpress

Budget Resistor Assortment Kit

It’s nice to have a good range of resistors whether you’re designing a circuit on a breadboard, or fixing a miscalculation on a prototype PCB. A cheap kit with good coverage of 5%/E24 tolerance values will serve you well. 

Buy from: eBay/Amazon/Aliexpress

Budget LED Assortment Kit of 3mm and 5mm

As mentioned above, LEDs are handy for indicating logic states or just making colorful flashy projects. By having 3mm and 5mm sizes, you can easily use the LEDs in breadboards or mount them in project enclosures.

Buy from: eBay/Amazon/Aliexpress

Breakaway Pin Headers

I find that having lots of breakaway pin headers is never enough. You’ll purchase breakout boards that don’t have headers soldered to them, and will have to solder them yourself to use them on your own PCBs. These also make plugging things into a breadboard very easy. If you can find gold plated ones, they will live for longer and still be easy to solder to. Some cheap tin plated ones tarnish quickly.

Buy from: Electronics suppliers, eBay/Amazon/Aliexpress

There are plenty more supplies you’ll find yourself needing for prototyping. However, those are generally project specific. You will end up collecting a range of development kits, hardware debuggers, breakout boards, displays, and the like, which will allow you to build up full designs on a breadboard before you commit to a schematic in EDA/ECAD software.

 

Test Equipment

Now, we get to the fun part of setting up a lab – gadgets! Every engineer loves test equipment, but among them, electronic engineers are especially lucky compared to other engineering fields in that they can readily visualize every aspect of their work if we have enough test equipment. For most labs, there are three key pieces of equipment that are required: a Digital Multimeter, an Oscilloscope, and a Logic Analyzer. 

I’m also going to add a lab power supply here; it’s not strictly a piece of test equipment, but being able to dial up whatever voltage you require and, more importantly, limit current to a freshly assembled board can rapidly expose a fault without destroying the board.

Digital Multimeter

The multimeter is the most basic piece of test equipment. A good one will let you read AC and DC voltage, AC and DC current, continuity, resistance, capacitance, frequency, and test diodes. They come in two forms; handheld, and benchtop. Handheld units are much more portable, while benchtop units typically have higher precision and additional functionality. One of the major advantages of most benchtop Digital Multimeters is that they allow you to use a 4-wire resistance measurement instead of the typical 2-wire method, which offers greater precision with low resistance values. There are some very low-end benchtop units that have exactly the same functionality and precision as a handheld unit, which I’m going to ignore, as if I had to choose one of them, I’d always go for the handheld.

The main specifications you’ll be looking at in a multimeter beyond its feature set is the resolution in digits or counts, the larger the better. You can read about the differences of counts vs digits over at BK Precision. You will also want to ensure the meter has an appropriate safety rating, being either CAT III or CAT IV. You can read more about the categories at National Instruments.

Whether you are new to electronics or an old hand, I’ll always suggest an auto ranging, true RMS meter. Cheaper meters will require you to select the measurement range manually, wasting time that auto ranging would have saved. Having a true RMS meter means you’re reading the actual Root Mean Squared voltage on an AC waveform, rather than just an average voltage.

You should only buy your multimeter from a reputable electronics distributor or test equipment supplier, such as DigiKey, Mouser, Element14/Farnell/Newark, RS Components and the like. By buying from a reputable source, you will ensure that the meter is both genuine and has been through appropriate safety testing. A cheap meter is great, but if you measure AC voltage on the wrong setting (for example, in continuity test mode), some cheaper brands will literally blow up in your hand. 

I’ve been using a Fluke 87 handheld meter for more than a decade, and it’s been great. It has lost it’s mA current measuring ability and some of the internal plastic supports broke, so I’ll probably look at upgrading it this year and I will be working off my recommendations here when I do. Despite Fluke’s fantastic reputation and quality, I will be looking at one of the Keysight models below, as I feel Keysight are currently offering more value than Fluke.

If you are setting up a lab for multiple engineers and trying to save money, consider giving each engineer a mid range handheld meter and having a desk set aside with higher end benchtop equipment, which can be used by the team when more precise measurements are called for.

Handheld Digital Multimeters

Basic

Tenma 72-7780
6000 Count
600V/10A Max
DCV 0.5% +2 digits
AC/DC Current
AC/DC Voltage
Capacitance
Continuity
Diode
Frequency
Resistance
Temperature

Mid Range 

Keysight U1242C

10000 Count
1kV/10A Max
DCV 0.09 % + 2 counts
AC/DC Current

AC/DC Voltage

Capacitance

Continuity

Diode

Frequency

Resistance

Temperature

Higher End

Keysight U1272A

30000 Count

1kV/10A Max
DCV 0.05% + 2 counts

AC/DC Current
AC/DC Voltage

Capacitance

Continuity

Diode

Frequency

Resistance

Temperature

 
Benchtop Digital Multimeters
 

Basic

RIGOL DM3058E

200,000 Count

DCV 0.015% + 0.003% of Range
123 Readings/second

1kVDC (750VAC)/20A max

AC/DC Current

AC/DC Voltage

Continuity

Frequency

Period

Resistance

Mid Range

Keithley 2110-240

200,000 Count

DCV 0.012%
50,000 Readings/Second

1kVDC (750VAC)/10A Max
AC/DC Current
AC/DC Voltage
Capacitance
Continuity
Diode
Frequency
Resistance
Temperature

Higher End

Keysight 34465A

2,000,000 Count

DCV 0.003%

5000 Readings/Second

50,000 Readings/Second Optional

1kVDC (750VAC)/10A Max

AC/DC Current

AC/DC Voltage

Capacitance

Continuity

Diode

Frequency

Resistance

Temperature

 

Digital Storage Oscilloscope

An oscilloscope (scope for short) is one of the most useful tools for developing and debugging electronics. It lets you see the signal on a line (or multiple lines with multiple channels) at very small time scales and very high resolution. There is a huge range of oscilloscopes from several hundred dollars to well over the price of a luxury sports car, or even a family home. The scopes below are well and truly on the lower end of this scale. If you’re setting up a lab for the first time, there’s very little chance you’ll need an oscilloscope that costs several hundred thousand dollars.

There are three critical specifications you need to consider when looking at an oscilloscope, and as this guide is not intended as an in depth guide for buying an oscilloscope, we’ll go over them pretty quickly. 

Firstly, you have bandwidth. The bandwidth you require should be at least three to five times the fundamental frequency of the signal you want to measure. If you’re working on a power supply with a 2.5MHz switching frequency, you would need just 12.5MHz of bandwidth. However, if you want to check SPI data clocked at 40MHz, you would be looking for a 200MHz bandwidth scope. If you start looking at LVDS signals to a display, the signal can be clocked at over 100MHz, which will mean you need an oscilloscope with 500MHz of bandwidth. Bandwidth is also one of the primary factors of the cost of an oscilloscope, which increases almost exponentially with bandwidth. The average hobbyist is likely to be very happy with a 50-100MHz oscilloscope. If you’re working professionally, a 200-500MHz scope might be more appropriate depending on your designs.

Second is sample rate. You need at least double the bandwidth as the sample rate for an oscilloscope to function, so five times greater than the bandwidth is good. You’ll find that most modern digital oscilloscopes in the bandwidth ranges we’re looking at here have ten times the bandwidth or more as their sample rate.

Third is memory depth. A larger memory depth is almost always desirable, as it allows you to have longer measurement duration. The duration you can measure at once is a function of memory depth divided by the sampling frequency (i.e., each sample takes up one point of memory). If you have more memory, you can visualise a signal over a longer period of time, or at a finer resolution, which can give you a bigger chance of finding a glitch that is causing your hardware issues.

Oscilloscopes come in several configurations, with most basic oscilloscopes having two channels. I find two channels very limiting, as I’ll typically want a third channel to measure or watch another signal related to the first two. For example, on an H-Bridge, you might be watching two MOSFETs gate pins and also looking at your gate driver IC’s inputs, or on a switched-mode power supply, monitoring the voltage at the input, output, and after a filter. As with many pieces of equipment, it’s usually cheaper to buy something that offers more than you need immediately than have to buy another piece of equipment to meet your needs a few months down the line.

Another configuration option on modern oscilloscopes is a mixed signal oscilloscope, which integrates a logic analyzer into the oscilloscope. At first glance, it might not seem particularly helpful to have a logic analyzer with the small screen of the oscilloscope when compared to a computer connected logic analyzer. In my opinion, the real advantage with the integrated logic analyzer is the ability to trigger on data from the logic analyzer rather than just the standard channel triggers.

 

Hobbyist

Rigol DS1052E
50MHz, 1GSa/s

16kpts memory depth

7ns rise time

2 mV/div - 10V/div
5ns/div - 50s/div

8 bit

Basic Professional

Keysight DSOX1204G

100MHz, 2GSa/s

1Mpts memory depth

3.5ns rise time

500 μV/div to 10 V/div

5 ns/div to 50 s/div

8 bit

Function Generator

Advanced

Rohde & Schwarz RTB2004-COM4

300MHz, 2GSa/s

10Mpts memory depth

1.15ns rise time

1 mV/div to 5 V/div

1 ns/div and 500 s/div

10 bit

Function Generator

As mentioned before, we’re not looking at the high-end scopes here. If you have a team of engineers, I would suggest setting up a desk with high-end equipment as I mentioned in the multimeter section. The basic professional scope above is a great option for each engineer’s desk, with a much higher end scope being on your shared ‘advanced debugging’ desk. 

 

Logic Analyzer

A logic analyzer allows you to easily analyze and decode digital signals. If you’re working with any digital protocol, it can be invaluable to see the communications between devices. Most digital communication protocols you would typically use between a microcontroller or FPGA and sensors can be easily decoded and visualised. This can be very helpful in debugging code that is talking to sensors or external peripherals when you just can’t figure out what's going wrong. Furthermore, logic analyzers are also very useful for reverse engineering if you need to look at the communications between two devices.

As I mentioned above, you can get logic analyzers built into oscilloscopes, and they are fantastic for giving you more trigger options. Nevertheless, the triggering options for oscilloscopes can also be very expensive, and the relatively small screen of an oscilloscope doesn’t offer the best user experience when working with device communications.

For USB logic analyzers, there’s two main options, the very cheap Jiankun/Kingst and the much more expensive Saleae units. I’ve used both and whilst the Jiankun provides incredible value for money, the user interface can be buggy and struggles with higher speed communications. The PC software is a clone of the older Saleae software. The LA2016 is perfect for hobbyists or professionals on a budget. On the other hand, Saleae’s superior software is better for professionals who don’t have time to waste on glitches and bugs. The Saleae Logic Pro’s USB 3.0 connection allows continuous streaming of samples, whereas the LA2016 uses USB 2.0 and the sample length will depend on the rate you are sampling the inputs at.

Budget

Jiankun/Kingst LA2016

16 channels

200MS/s

50M samples/channel

USB 2.0

Professional

Saleae Logic Pro 16

16 channels

500MS/s

Unlimited samples/channel

USB 3.0

 

Lab Power Supply

As someone regularly designing new PCBs, a quality lab power supply is critical for my lab desk. A simple mistake in a schematic or PCB layout can easily result in a newly assembled board drawing a lot more current than it should. Not to mention, there may be a short on the board you missed during assembly. By powering up the board with a current controlled power supply, you can set the current limit to just a bit higher than what you expect the operating current of the board to be. This way if the power supply immediately starts in constant current mode, rather than constant voltage, you will know that there is potentially an issue with the board, and you can do some extra diagnostics without letting the magic smoke out.

You can also use a good lab power supply to generate voltages you might be able to easily obtain from batteries, which will allow you to power up LEDs, motors, solenoids, and the like with ease, as well as watch their current draw in real time. Most modern digital power supplies have good current metering capabilities, which leaves your multimeter free for voltage checking on the board rather than monitoring current draw.

A lot of very cheap switched-mode power supplies have large capacitors on their outputs, which makes them a poor choice for powering up electronics for the first time. If you plug the device under test into the power supply when it’s already switched on, no matter what the current limit is set to, you will have all the energy available in that capacitor available to you instantaneously, which can vaporize almost any circuit or LED you test. If you plug the device in with the power supply switched off, then turn it on when you are ready to test, you will have to account for the inrush current of that large capacitor when calculating your current limit. Once that capacitor is charged, your circuit will receive the full benefit of that higher current limit, which may be enough to damage a poorly placed or incorrect value component. Therefore, I won’t be including any low cost switched-mode power supplies here.

A good indicator of a quality power supply is weight; linear power supplies are very heavy due to the large heatsinks inside. A cheap, poor quality power supply will have a weight that is a fraction of a similarly rated high quality supply.

Basic

Tenma 72-13310

Two 0-30v 0-5A

One 2.5v/3.3v/5v 3A

315W

Load:

Voltage: ≤0.01%+5mV

Current: ≤0.1%+10mA

Line:
Voltage: ≤0.01%+3mV

Current: ≤0.1%+3mA

Ripple/Noise:

Voltage: ≤ 2mVrms

Current: ≤ 3mArms

Mid Range

Keithly 2231A-30-3

Two 0-30v 0-3A

One 0-5v 0-3A

195W

Load:
Voltage: ≤0.02% + 4mV Current: ≤0.2% + 3mA

Line:

Voltage: ≤0.02% + 4mV Current: ≤0.2% + 3mA

Ripple/Noise:

Voltage: ≤1mVrms/≤5mVp-p

Current: ≤6mArms

Higher End

Rigol DP832A

Two 0-30v 0-3A

One 0-5v 0-3A

195W

Load:

Voltage: <0.01% + 2mV

Current: <0.01% + 250μA

Line:

Voltage: <0.01% + 2mV

Current: <0.01% + 250μA
Ripple/Noise:
Voltage: <350μV / 2mVpp

Current: <2mA rms

The Rigol in the top spot over options from Keysight, Tektronix, Keithly and B&K Precision, the traditional champions of benchtop test equipment, might seem a little odd. However, this is based on my experience of using a DP832A for several years. The DP832A packs a lot of functionality into the power supply with some great analysis tools, as well as being a high quality power supply. With a several million dollar budget, I was hard pressed to find a better option than the Rigol for day to day operational use.

 

Specialised Equipment

Beyond the test equipment previously mentioned is a vast range of specialised test equipment, as well as highly specialised versions of the equipment above. Due to the more application specific nature of this equipment, we will not look at specific models, but give you an idea of what you might use each piece of equipment for.

Function/Signal Generators

Most mid-range and high-end oscilloscopes have basic function generators built-in, which can handle most use cases for a function generator, but sometimes you need a signal more complex or specialized than these can generate. For under $200, you can purchase a single channel arbitrary function generator with a lot more functionality than what is offered by those built into an oscilloscope. If you need to generate RF signals or other very high frequency signals or protocols, there are options well into the tens of thousands of dollars.

On the very basic end of applications, a function generator can be very useful to characterise logic devices and test analog components. If you have an issue with a clock on a device, you can easily substitute it with a signal from the function generator. Using more advanced function generators, you can simulate complex waveforms or protocols, allowing you to create RF signals and emulate RF protocols such as Bluetooth, WiFi, or cellular protocols, or more basic communication protocols like CAN, SPI or I2C.

Programmable Loads

If you’re working with power supplies, batteries, or solar cells, then a programmable load might be just what you need to make testing easier. A programmable load allows you to stress test a power supply with extreme precision. Typically, you will find them capable of acting in constant current, constant resistance, or constant power dissipation modes. You can program a test profile to simulate a device, or simply constantly absorb energy. The most basic units will be under $200, and you can easily spend tens of thousands of dollars on advanced units with fast slew rates and pulsed load profiles into the range of hundreds of kilowatts.

Thermal Imaging

Even when working with modest amounts of current, you can quickly overheat ICs causing them to shut down or be damaged. When working on projects with high current draw, a thermal imaging camera can quickly diagnose these issues without gluing temperature probes all over the circuit board. The thermal camera sees long wave infrared (radiated heat) rather than the visible light spectrum like a regular camera. Having a thermal camera can be invaluable to visualise the thermal dissipation paths of a circuit board as well as peak and average temperatures. A few hundred dollars will buy you a low resolution camera that can attach to your smartphone, and a few thousand dollars will buy you a higher precision and resolution handheld model.

If you’re looking to buy a thermal camera, consider buying a can of black spray paint as well. Bare metal will reflect infrared light which makes it impossible to see the temperature of solder, RF shields and exposed copper. By spray painting the entire board black, the camera is easily able to see the thermal emissions.

RF Test

If you are working directly on radio frequency devices that are creating or receiving radio signals, you will likely want to purchase some specialised RF test equipment. 

The most basic piece of test equipment for RF testing is the Spectrum Analyzer, which allows you to analyze the RF spectrum and power levels. This can be used for debugging an RF circuit, watching devices talk to each other, and basic compliance testing. Spectrum Analyzers are relatively expensive pieces of test equipment and get exponentially more expensive as the frequency increases. Lower cost options exist as Software Defined Radio (SDR), which use your computer's screen and processing power to analyze the signal.

If you are laying out RF circuitry or designing antennas, a network analyzer can allow you to quickly tune and optimise the RF path and components. Network analyzers are available as either a Scalar Network Analyzer (SNA) or a Vector Network Analyzer (VNA). The scalar network analyzer is much more cost effective if you only need to see amplitude at frequency, allowing you to measure VSWR and reflectance. While most large test equipment vendors no longer make SNAs, if VSWR and reflectance values are sufficient for your testing, some benchtop spectrum analyzers and many SDR spectrum analyzers integrate a tracking generation function which allows the spectrum analyzer to act as a SNA.

A Vector Network Analyzer, on the other hand, allows you to visualise both amplitude and phase. This enables you to generate Smith Charts, which can be used to very rapidly tune a circuit or an antenna, or to characterize a device.

On the most basic side of RF test equipment, you can use a frequency counter to find the primary frequency of a radio transmission. This can be useful for confirming the output frequency of a basic RF transmission with no sidebands or any frequency hopping. Additionally, an RF Power Meter can display the RF power coming from the circuit, giving a very accurate indication of the amount of power it generates. A spectrum analyzer makes these measurements much easier and more visual, but is far more expensive.

Data Acquisition and Logging

Data acquisition units can be very useful in the lab as they have a variety of purposes. You can think of them as multi-channel digital multimeters with logging functionality. This can be very useful for failure analysis, production pass/fail testing, and rapid testing of cable harnesses. 

By monitoring many channels on the board at once for long periods of time, any failure can be more readily analyzed to determine what went wrong. 

With the many channels available, you can build a custom test fixture for a production device to read voltage, current, light or any other digital or analog signal rapidly and precisely from test points. This can be much faster than developing software on a microcontroller to make all these readings.

Finally, if you have a complex cable harness, you can use an acquisition unit, owing to its large number of channels, to rapidly build a custom harness tester to not only check continuity between connectors, but also look at voltage drop or capacitance over the cable to ensure it is correctly crimped and terminated.

 

Storage

Finally, I find storage one of the biggest battles in the electronics lab. Being able to store excess components from prototyping, spare PCBs and even just storing tools is fundamental to any work space. You can never have enough storage, and it tends to be an ongoing process of optimization to have some desk space and shelf space remaining, yet also have everything you need close at hand.

Here are some quick ideas for you.

Component Drawers

Component drawers plus a cheap label maker allow you to easily store excess components in labelled drawers. This makes it easy to grab a draw of say 10k 1% 0402 resistors when you need them. You can find these drawers in an expensive ESD variety or just plain. Shop around for these, as electronics suppliers can be more expensive than craft stores or hardware stores.

Storage Totes

If you’re working on multiple projects at once, storage totes can allow you to keep all the parts, boards, test harnesses and such together easily. As you build up more and more dev kits and programmers, you’ll find yourself wanting multiple storage totes for keeping these per manufacturer. They can easily be stacked in a closet or a storage room to be pulled out when needed.

Rolling Tool Chest

Commonly used by mechanics, tool chests are really handy for storing all your tools in and giving a surface on top for working on something. It’s great for keeping tools you don’t always need on hand, like rotary tools, cordless drills, and hand tools. They can also be a great place to store fasteners and cable ties, so the tools and fasteners are close at hand. A lot of stores have these at very high prices, while eBay has adequate quality tool chests very cheap.

Under Desk Pedestal Drawers

It might seem obvious, but under desk pedestal drawers are a great place for storing all your stationery and little hand tools like flush trim cutters, knives and such.

ESD Laboratory Desks/Benches

Not surprisingly, there are specialised desk setups for electronics labs. These have all the power connections you might need built-in off the desk level, plus shelves for test equipment and integrated lighting. If you have space for a separate desk just for assembly/rework/testing, these might make your work environment more pleasant.

Have more questions? Call an expert at Altium. If you want the best PCB design software on the market, look no further than Altium Designer®.

About the Author

Mark Harris

Mark Harris is an engineer's engineer, with over 12 years of diverse experience within the electronics industry, varying from aerospace and defense contracts to small product startups, hobbies and everything in between. Before moving to the United Kingdom, Mark was employed by one of the largest research organizations in Canada; every day brought a different project or challenge involving electronics, mechanics, and software. He also publishes the most extensive open source database library of components for Altium Designer called the Celestial Database Library. Mark has an affinity for open-source hardware and software and the innovative problem-solving required for the day-to-day challenges such projects offer. Electronics are passion; watching a product go from an idea to reality and start interacting with the world is a never-ending source of enjoyment.

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