Essential Electronics Laboratory Equipment

Provision your home electronics lab with standard equipment

Engineer soldering prototype circuit board with oscilloscope in foreground

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Setting up an electronics laboratory requires just a few standard pieces of equipment and tools. While specialty pieces of equipment may be essential for your application, the customary tools are the same for nearly any electronics lab.

Multimeter

Multimeter
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A multimeter's measurement flexibility combined with its precision and accuracy makes multimeters a useful tool in any electronics lab. Multimeters 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

Engineering student in wheelchair connecting capacitor to LCR impedance meter
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As versatile as multimeters are, they cannot measure capacitance or inductance, which is where the inductance, capacitance, and resistance meter 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 impedance of the component, equivalent series resistance, and the quality factor of the component. The accuracy of low-cost LCR meters is often quite poor, with tolerances as high as 20 percent. Since many capacitors have a 20 percent tolerance themselves, compounding the tolerance of the meter and component leads to additional problems in designing and troubleshooting electronics.

Oscilloscope

Hand adjusting dial on oscilloscope
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Electronics are all about the signals and the oscilloscope is the primary measurement tool to observe the shape of signals. Oscilloscopes, often called o-scopes 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 format offers a very powerful method to understand the shape of a signal, determine what is going on in an electronic circuit, and monitor its 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 feature 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

Soldering iron in electronics workshop
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The core tool for assembling electronics is the soldering iron, a hand tool that melts solder to form an electrical and physical connection between two surfaces. Soldering irons come in a few forms, with the cheapest plugged directly into an outlet from the hand tool. While these soldering irons get the job done, for most sensitive electronics work a temperature-controlled soldering station works better.

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

Pair of hands stripping a wire with the right tool
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Every electronics lab needs a few key mechanical hand tools to help with the basic tasks and make 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 useful when you're soldering components to a printed circuit board and the component, PCB, soldering iron, and solder all need to be held in place.

Optics

Man welding an electric circuit using a magnifying lens
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Electronic components get very very small—small enough that they can be difficult to hold with even precision tweezers. Basic lab optics such as magnifying loupes and large articulated magnifying lenses are useful in many cases but do not provide a great deal of magnification, with 5x-to-10x magnification 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 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

Electronic programmable power supplies
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It's difficult to test a circuit without applying power to it. Several types of power supplies support electronics design and testing with varying sets of features. For a general-purpose laboratory power supply, variable voltage-and-current controls are one of the most important features. Often these power supplies 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

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