Essential Electronics Laboratory Equipment

Engineer soldering prototype circuit board with oscilloscope in foreground
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Setting up an electronics laboratory requires just a few essential pieces of equipment and tools. While specialty pieces of equipment may be essential for your application, the essential pieces of equipment are the same for nearly any electronics lab.

Multimeter

A multimeter's measurement flexibility combined with their precision and accuracy make multimeters an essential tool in any electronics lab.

Multimeters will typically be able to measure both AC and DC voltage and current as well as resistance. Multimeters are often used in troubleshooting designs and testing prototype circuits. Multimeter accessories include transistor testing modules, temperature sensor probes, high voltage probes, and probe kits. Multimeters are available for as little as $10 and can run several thousand for a high accuracy, high precision benchtop unit.

LCR Meter

As versatile as multimeters are, they cannot measure capacitance or inductance which is where the LCR meter (Inductance (L), Capacitance (C), and Resistance (R)) comes into the picture. LCR meters come in two variants, a lower cost version that measures the total impedance of a component and a more expensive type that measures all of the components of the impendence of the component, equivalent series resistance (ESR) and the Quality (Q) factor of the component.

The accuracy of low-cost LCR meters is often quite poor, with tolerances as high as 20%. Since many capacitors have a 20% tolerance themselves, compounding the tolerance of the meter and component can cause additional problems in designing and troubleshooting electronics.

Oscilloscope

Electronics are all about the signals and the oscilloscope is the primary measurement tool to observe the shape of signals.

Oscilloscopes, often called oscopes or just scopes, display signals in a graphical format on a pair of axes, generally with Y as the voltage and X as the time. This is a very powerful way to quickly see the shape of a signal, determine what is going on in an electronic circuit and monitor performance or track down problems. Oscilloscopes are available in digital and analog variants, starting at a few hundred dollars and running into the tens of thousands for the top of the line models. Digital scopes have several measurements and trigger options built into the system which make measurements of peak-to-peak voltage, frequency, pulse width, rise time, signal comparisons, and recording waveforms simple tasks.

Soldering Iron

The core tool for assembling electronics is the soldering iron, a hand tool used to melt solder to form an electrical and physical connection between two surfaces. Soldering irons come in a few forms, with the cheapest being plugged directly into an outlet from the hand tool. While these soldering irons work, for most electronics work a temperature controlled soldering station is much preferred. The tip of a soldering iron is heated by a resistive heater and often monitored by a temperature sensor to keep the temperature of the tip steady.

Soldering iron tips are often removable and are available in a range of shapes and styles to accommodate different types of soldering work.

Precision Mechanical Tools

Every electronics labs needs a few key mechanical hand tools to help with the basic tasks and make the more complex tasks much easier. Some of the key tools include shear cutters, wire strippers, ESD-safe tweezers, needle nose pliers, precision screwdriver set, "third hand" tools, and alligator/test clips and leads. Some tools, such as the ESD safe tweezers, are essential for surface mount work while other tools, such as the "third hand" tool are very useful when soldering components to a PCB and the component, PCB, soldering iron and solder all need to be held in place.

Optics

Electronic components get very very small. Small enough that they can be difficult to hold with even precision tweezers let alone see. Basic lab optics such as a magnifying loupes and large articulated magnifying lenses are useful in many cases, but do not provide a great deal of magnification, with 5-10x magnification available at the higher end. Loupes and magnifying lenses work well for basic lab needs, but if surface mount assembly and inspection work will be done, then a stereomicroscope is ideal. For surface mount work, a stereomicroscope that provides between 25x and +90x magnification which supports precision soldering of surface mount chips and board level inspection. Stereomicroscopes start at around $500 and are available in fixed or variable zoom, multiple lighting options, and additional optical paths for mounting cameras or for multiple users.

Power Supply

In the end, it's difficult to test a circuit without applying power to it. Several types of power supplies are available to support electronics design and testing with a number of features. For a general purpose laboratory power supply, variable voltage and current controls are one of the most important features. This allows one supply to provide a wide range of voltages that can be adjusted for any application. Often these power supplies can operate in either a constant voltage or constant current mode, allowing rapid testing of components or portions of a design without building a specific power regulation circuit.

Other Equipment

The equipment above only scratches the surface of the equipment that is available and might be critical for your application. Some of the other common equipment with more of a focused use includes:

  • Function Generators
  • Signal Generators
  • Spectrum Analyzers
  • Signal Analyzers
  • Pattern Generator
  • Protocol Analyzer
  • Network Analyzer
  • Transistor Tester