Tips and Tricks – Build an Embedded Workbench for less than $1000

An embedded systems developer looking to build a workbench could spend tens of thousands of dollars on test equipment, development boards and miscellaneous tools. Unfortunately, most equipment just sits on the bench collecting dust and is rarely if ever used. Let’s examine the core tools that every developer needs to build an embedded workbench on a budget of $1000.

There are a number of big ticket items that every developer should have on their bench. The first is a high quality and capable power supply. The first power supply I ever purchased was a Mastech HY5005 dual output power supply. It cost only $250 and it seemed like a great deal at the time. I quickly discovered that trying to save a few dollars would only cost me more. The power supply lasted about a year and a half before I was out looking for a new. I settled on a BK Precision 1687B single rail power supply that could provide 1 – 36 volts at up to 10 amps. For a cost of $300 and so far more than 5 years of service, I’ve learned you pay for what you get.

PowerSupply

The second large ticket item that every developer should have on their bench is a logic analyzer. When debugging a driver or when the need arises to snoop on a communication line, there are few tools that do a better job. My personal favorite is the Saleae Logic 8 channel analyzer that runs for $219. It can sample on all 8 channels at a rate of 100 MS/s. The software for the Saeleae is always improving and having additional features added and the quality of this tool has always been great.

Logic

The last big ticket items that every developer should have is a decent multi-meter. I find that I use my multi-meter less and less each year but it is still important to have a good one available to check continuity and board voltages. I’ve been using a Fluke 115 which runs for about $140 dollars.
The three big ticket items above bring the current workbench cost to about $660 which leaves $340 dollars for smaller bench items and tools. Notice that there has been no mention of signal generators, oscilloscopes, spectrum analyzers or other expensive equipment. I’ve found that most of these just sit on the bench collecting dust and are better off being rented when needed than spending the money on. Developing an embedded system based on a microcontroller and living in a digital realm really doesn’t require much more than the three big items we’ve already discussed anyways.

Now for small things that should go on the workbench. I believe the first item should be development kits for experimentation. Development kits have become extremely inexpensive and can be purchased in price ranges from $12 – $20 each. I would recommend buying a number of these inexpensive boards up to $100. I would at least include:

Freescale Kinetis-L Freedom Boards
Microchip chipKit
ST Micro STM32 Nucleo Boards

With $240 dollars to spare it is important to purchase tools that will be used to interface with the development boards and used for prototyping. Purchasing or building an Isolated USB to UART converter is an important low cost tool to protect PC equipment but also to allow communications between a development kit and a PC. An Isolated USB to UART converter can be built from Sparkfun parts for $20. To learn how see my YouTube video on the topic at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ImpqPjiVpVg.

SerialAdapter

There are a number of tools that can and should be purchased for within $120 of the $220 budget. These include
• A third hand with magnifier, https://www.sparkfun.com/products/9317
• Jumper wires, https://www.sparkfun.com/products/9194
• Banana cables, https://www.sparkfun.com/products/506
• Hook up wire, https://www.sparkfun.com/products/11367
• Realtime clock break-out board, https://www.sparkfun.com/products/12708
• Logic level converter, https://www.sparkfun.com/products/12009
• microSD break-out board, https://www.sparkfun.com/products/544
• Ethernet interface board, https://www.sparkfun.com/products/765
These are examples of what could be purchased. Similar types of tools can be purchased from Digikey or any other parts supplier.

When building an embedded work bench, a large number of the big ticket items can be foregone and instead smaller and more useful tools and equipment purchased. For less than $1000 a developer can get everything they need to experiment, learn build and design which in turn will give them the skills and experience they need to get the job done faster.

What tools and equipment have you found yourself always reaching for that should be included in the last $100 of budget? Email me at [email protected] to let me know.

One thought on “Tips and Tricks – Build an Embedded Workbench for less than $1000”

  1. I would like to add a Soldering Station to prototype hardware or ESD mat. I will prefer to go with a good development kit that includes hardware to play with most of its peripheral on board.

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