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Bench Talk for Design Engineers

Bench Talk


Bench Talk for Design Engineers | The Official Blog of Mouser Electronics

5 Tips for Getting Started In Electronics Mike Parks

Electronics is an amazing profession and hobby. The notion that one can harness the forces of nature and bend them to one’s whim is immensely satisfying. With the resurgence of the DIY spirit and the evolution of the Maker Movement, getting started in electronics has never been easier. Embedded open source platforms such as Arduino and BeagleBone provide a fantastic jumping in point for learning electronics and software. I could only have dreamt of the resources we have today when I was first starting out. With that in mind, here are my five tips for getting started in electronics based on what I’ve learned over the last 20 years:

  1. Parts. Don’t go overboard buying stuff. My first suggestion is to focus on coming up with specific projects that you want to accomplish, then purchase your Bill of Materials (BOM) based on the needs of a particular project. With that said, I still always buy extra components anytime I make a purchase. There is nothing worse than being one terminal screw block short after you redesign a project during testing. I would start off with a handful of resistors and capacitors with the more popular component values, such as 220, 1K, 10K, and 100K resistors. Then .1, 1, 10, and 100 µF capacitors, both polarized and non-polarized. Add in a variety of buttons, switches, header pins, terminal screw blocks, and a few different breadboards and hook-up wire in a variety of colors. Multiple colors of wire allow you to assign a color code to make troubleshooting easier. For example, I personally assign green for ground wires, red for Vcc wires, yellow for digital signals, and orange for analog signals.
  2. Tools. It’s hard to resist the visual allure of an oscilloscope sitting on your desk. However, when you are just starting out, a nice digital multimeter (DMM) is probably a better investment. Add some decent wire strippers, a variety of screwdrivers, plus some needle nose pliers, and you are set for breadboarding. If you are interested in soldering, then the next big investment after a DMM is a nice, variable temperature soldering iron. Soldering is more art than science, and having a nice iron will give you the confidence you need to succeed in prototyping. Be sure to add .0031” 60/40 rosin core solder, solder flux, brass sponge tip cleaner, a solder sucker and desoldering wick when you decide to take up soldering. Visit an interactive site for Mouser’s design, prototype, and test products here.
  3. Space. You need to pick a place where you can securely leave projects out for a long period of time. It should also be well lit and ventilated, especially if you plan on doing any soldering or PCB etching. Having a place where you can eventually grow by adding additional tools and equipment is also a plus. This means not only having the desktop real estate but also having plenty of easily accessible electrical outlets. Internet access is also a must, as it will allow you to research datasheets and circuit layouts. I also recommend a whiteboard with a variety of marker colors to help brainstorm circuit design or pseudocode.
  4. Books. Yes, dead tree books are something I highly recommend. Having a good electronics reference book allows you to easily mark up the white spaces with notes and calculations. If I had to choose just one book it would the “Art of Electronics” by Paul Horowitz and Winfield Hill. I also recommend carrying around a composition notebook to help capture ideas for projects whenever you conjure them up. If you are like me, I love to eventually get my ideas onto my tablet for long-term storage and sharing. However, nothing beats pencil and paper for getting the idea out of your head initially.
  5. Co-Makers. Like co-workers, but more fun! Building a network of like-minded makers is crucial for success. A social network will allow you to bounce ideas off of other people, which will allow you to refine your ideas. Additionally, once you inevitably hit a roadblock, nothing beats getting a fresh set of eyes to look at a problem. I encourage you to add people who are not just at your skill level, but also those with more skills and especially those with lesser skills. Nothing makes you a better “doer” than teaching. I would highly recommend joining a makerspace (a physical, community “hacker” space and shared lab) if at all possible. If not possible, the Internet has given rise to many communities and tools to create a “virtual makerspace.” In fact, I recently set up a Google Group to discuss OSHW projects, which you can check out here.

We want to hear from you! What are your tips for getting started with electronics? Or you can feel free to share photos of your electronics lab setup in the OSHW project group.

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Michael Parks, P.E. is the co-founder of Green Shoe Garage, a custom electronics design studio and embedded security research firm located in Western Maryland. He produces the Gears of Resistance Podcast to help raise public awareness of technical and scientific matters. Michael is also a licensed Professional Engineer in the state of Maryland and holds a Master’s degree in systems engineering from Johns Hopkins University.

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