Objective: To present a starter pack for an Electronics work station
Recommended prerequisite articles to read: None
A couple of years back, I was working as a research assistant at a university in Kenya for a renewable energy project. The project was aimed at providing a smart monitoring, billing and control for remote microgrid installations. The task was to develop GSM-enabled DC meters for monitoring remote solar installations and communicating with a central database/dashboard and users via SMS and GPRS.
I used the PCB etching facilities that were available at the institution back then (2014-2016). Whilst the job was done, the results and quality of the boards left a significant room for improvement. As much as my skills were not yet adequately developed, the PCB etching facilities and components locally available limited the design options. Attached here are some of the meters that were locally designed, fabricated and assembled.
Years later, and with more exposure, I was making much improved PCBs such as the one shown below. This series is an attempt to document the steps taken to achieve the current results. This first article aims to hopefully guide a beginner on some of the tools and items that may come in handy.
It may be daunting on where to start if this is the first time one is setting out on equipping oneself with the ability to work with electronic circuit boards. Whether it is to solder a capacitor here, remove a resistor there, read that minuscule label on a fried IC or even to build a custom board altogether; it is essential to have a minimum set of items to smoothen your journey. Here I give a breakdown of the items obtained and their sources. By no means do I claim they are the optimal choice for a beginner, but I managed to achieve remarkable results with them. Amazon Japan product pages are linked since that’s where most of the items were purchased. They can definitely be obtained from many other Amazon sites. However, it’s important to note here that any of the items below that need mains power are rated at 110V since that’s the Japanese consumer voltage levels. Hence you may need to look for similar or alternative products that have the right voltage rating for your country.
1. Soldering Kit This kit on Amazon at about USD 30 contains the key items to start you off: Digital Multimeter, Soldering Iron, spare soldering tips, solder wick, tweezers, solder wire (short) and other miscellaneous items. As a bonus, these items come in a decent tool-box.
2. Magnifying Glass with LED light To help with working with small IC chips and more so SMD components, a magnifying glass will come in handy. The magnifier below comes with an LED light that can either be battery powered or mains powered.
3. Solder Paste For SMD soldering, solder paste is very convenient especially if in your designs you will be using a stencil. For longevity, always keep the paste in a refrigerated environment. The price is about USD 13.
4. Soldering Wire At about USD 6, this 1mm 50g solder wire will do the job. There are cheaper alternatives, nevertheless.
5. Solder Flux
6. Solder Iron Tip Cleaner For about USD 1, this solder tip cleaner is very appropriate for your soldering tasks.
7. Isopropyl Alcohol This is a very key companion in PCB assembly and soldering. It will be useful in cleaning the boards, wiping off flux residues and generally makes your soldering experience smooth by cleaning the electronic contacts. At about USD 13, this 1 litre Isopropyl Alcohol will serve you for a long time.
8. Screw Nut Hex Spacers Your design may need stacking two or more boards together, or simply providing a clearance/spacing between your board and the (housing) surface. This Kuman set at about USD 10 provides 180 pieces of nuts and screw spacers of different sizes.
9. Hot-Air Gun Sometimes you may need to remove some SMD components from an old PCB. In that case, a hot-air gun station may be necessary. While there are many products out there, I was looking for the cheapest and I settled on this USD. 20, 1800W, 100V hot-air gun. I however, found it too “airy” for small SMD component soldering. This was not a showstopper since an oven proved to be the perfect SMD soldering tool as I will discuss in the next post.
10. Breadboard and jumper wires I have purchased all the above items at some point in my projects, but I have not acquired this one as I had other alternatives. However, I find it a fair bargain for it provides the essential peripherals, at USD. 20, that may come in handy when starting out.
As I stated at the beginning, the above list is non-exhaustive neither is it optimal. For each of the above items, there are probably tens of alternatives from hundreds of suppliers. My intention was to give a beginner an idea of some of the items they may find useful and necessary. Getting them from a single source may prove an expensive alternative, but it’s highly convenient. The latter adequately compensates for the former, in my opinion. It would also be key to point out that for a specific electronic design or project, you will need a wide variety of tools and components. Unsurprisingly, after a steep initial purchasing undertaking, you will soon have a stockpile of tools and components that will serve your future designs with minimal replenishment or new acquisitions.