Here's how I juggle embedded projects

(Home office/workspace tour)

My workspace has gone through a ton of changes over the years, but this year, I started making a concerted effort to rethink how to juggle multiple projects effectively. I started working seriously on my So you want to build an embedded Linux system? blog post, which entailed building lots of different hardware, and evaluating it ad-hoc as I went along. I would notice something strange about a platform, and then think back, “wait, was it the same way on that other chip, too?” I’d have to dig up old boards, plug everything together, fire it up, run a command, and check the output.

At the same time, there’s been a lot of buzz online in the past year or so about electronics workspaces. With so many people working from home during the pandemic, everyone’s been sharing the gear they’ve been using, what their office setups look like, and how they like to manage things. Since several people have asked me to talk about workflow, I thought I’d throw my hat in the ring. This post will discuss my office design, my workflow, and all the gear — big and small — I use to juggle different projects.

The rug may stay the same, but my workspace has evolved dramatically since I set my first one up in 2010.

Evolved Spaces

Our workspaces reflect who we are and what we care about, so they evolve over time. You’re going to acquire new gear, get rid of tools you don’t use, upsize, downsize, and twist and turn. I was digging through old photos to try to come up with some examples of my previous set-ups, and it really brought back some memories. I also realized it took me a long time to realize what was working for me and what wasn’t.

My real foray into electronics started toward the end of my undergrad career in 2010 when I was living in a bit of a party house. My DMX lights, amplifiers, and other gear seemed in constant need of repair; this was the first time that I really connected the abstract material we were learning in EE classes to real-world applications. This was also when I started building little circuits on protoboard (one of the first projects I remember was an XLR balanced line receiver for an amplifier to remove hum). These circuits required nothing more than a soldering iron and a computer to look up datasheets. Eventually, I snagged an oscilloscope, function generator, and linear power supply. I was set.

Back then, programming terrified me. My only embedded systems experience was an assembly-based class I took a few years prior taught mostly on a blackboard, along with a giant 68HC12 development board that was chained to a Windows 95 PC in a lab. Like many of my EE classes, I nearly failed it; I clearly remember leaving that class thinking I could never do any programming. I’d stick to analog circuits, thank you very much.

Early experiments on a PIC16 microcontroller from July, 2010.

The problem was that I kept hitting a glass wall with little projects I wanted to do at home. I remember wanting to build sound-activated lights, a little RF remote control thing, and tons of other little projects, but it seemed like everything required a microcontroller. I started tip-toeing into embedded systems. Based on suggestions from forums online, I started dorking around with PIC16 and PIC18 parts, using a PicKit clone and a pirated copy of the CCS toolchain. You may laugh, but keep in mind that I had never heard of Arduino (nor had most people at the time), I had never done any C programming, and I had no social network of mentors to learn from.

This is when I started experimenting with different workspace setups. I threw together a computer out of old parts and set that up on my bench as my electronics workstation. It was old and slow, but totally passable for basic MCU development.

I started a master’s program after graduating that winter. I was working in a fantastic lab on campus with a great setup (and deep pocketbooks to buy any new gear I wanted). I was totally enthralled by the experience and rarely went home before 10 or 11 pm. My workbench at home started gathering dust. In the spring of that year, I bought a house. Looking for a cozy, clean look, I didn’t even think to move my then-dilapidated workbench into my new home office — I moved it into the garage, out of sight, knowing I’d rarely use it.

When I started taking on consulting projects a year and a half later, I dusted the bench off and moved it upstairs into my home office. Instead of a dedicated bench computer, I ran long DVI and USB cables from my main desktop. Over time, I acquired better gear and started narrowing more into my current specialty of intersecting embedded hardware and software. My analog kit started moving further away, out of sight, replaced with more monitors, more USB hubs, and more computer-related peripherals. This is essentially how I operated for the next six years until I bought my current home, which proved to be a good time to take a step back and re-evaluate the best way to set things up.

Workspaces are not one-size-fits-all

Scrolling through responses to Chris Gammell’s tweet soliciting workspace inspiration, the first thing I noticed is how utterly different everyone’s set-ups are. Same thing with Arturo182’s request. There are classic analog electronics workbenches, like this one from @Mind_of_Bob:

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There are people with elaborate setups to assemble large batches of PCBs, like @talldarknweirdo’s setup:

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Plus many with lots of built-in storage and mechanical capabilities, like @lacavedly has:

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What an “electronics workspace” means to you really depends on what “electronics” means to you.  This may seem obvious, but I get lots of questions from people asking about how many desks they need, or which scope they should buy, or which function generator they need, or which power supply to get, or whether they should get an Analog Discovery 2, 3D printer, bigger monitor, or any number of other gear. 

Establishing Modalities

If you’re thinking about redoing your space, the first thing to think about is how much time you spend in each modality in your office. Is your computer a thing you just use to look up datasheets on, or do you sit in front of it 24/7? Are your soldering station and oscilloscope the two most important things you use? This will help you inform how things should be arranged with respect to each other. While you’re thinking about this, you might want to consider:

  • The type of projects you work on. If you’re designing a lot of analog audio projects, you might need a signal generator, scope, high-quality bipolar supplies, variac, isolation transformer, distortion meter, and other specialized analog test equipment close to you all the time. If you’re doing ultra-low-power embedded, you’ll replace most of that with a logic analyzer, BLE/LoRA packet sniffer, and some sort of source measurement unit (SMU). Totally different gear.
  • The level of mechanical integration. If you’re doing turn-key proof-of-concept prototyping, you might spend a lot of time in front of a 3D printer, laser cutter, or needing ready access to lots of hand tools to build and assemble prototypes.
  • Whether you’re assembling PCBs or not. There are tons of electronics hobbyists that really focus on breadboarding circuits and repairing gear — they really don’t do much PCB assembly. And building up quantity-of-five runs is quite different from building up larger batches, where it makes sense to invest in stencil printers, pick-and-place machines, and large reflow ovens. Where will those be set up in relation to other stuff in your office?
  • The amount of firmware engineering you do. Whether you actively use your computer while working on projects is going to drive your computer choices and office layout. 

Building My Priorities

For me, I’ve narrowed it down to a few things:

Computer-centric workflow

 I’m an embedded electronics engineer, not a technician. I spend most of a prototype’s design lifecycle in front of a computer, reading PDFs, searching for supplies, designing PCBs, coordinating and designing mechanical CAD stuff, writing firmware, and communicating with others on my team about these designs. My computer needs to be the main attraction — it needs to be extremely powerful, and I need a massive amount of monitor space to stretch out and multitask.

Processor-heavy PCB bring-up

I work on processor-centric designs at the intersection of hardware and software, so 95% of the time, I’ve got PCBs that I’m futzing with while they’re attached to my computer. That means I need a soldering iron, multimeter, and logic analyzer right next to my computer at all times.

This was the biggest problem I had with my old office: my computer was completely disconnected from my bench. Eventually, I hacked around this issue a bit with a couple of extra monitors, but window management was a pain in the butt and I just wasn’t as productive as I could have been.

An interesting corollary: since I work on processor-heavy designs, it also means I really don’t need a lot of specialized analog test gear — at least right next to me at all times. If my oscilloscope broke, it’d probably be a couple of months before I even noticed. This is something very particular with the projects I work on; if I were more of a pure embedded software engineer, I could handle having my soldering setup on the other side of the room. If I mostly built guitar pedals, I’d probably want way more test gear and way less computer to bring my boards up.

Juggling multiple projects

I always have way too many projects on my desk that are completely unrelated. I need to be able to tear down and set up projects quickly. I also need ample work surfaces so I can keep multiple projects set up concurrently when possible.

Small-batch assembly

I build very small volumes of prototypes when it’s convenient — usually no more than 3-5 boards. For assembly, I need some minimal computing access, along with a massive amount of desk space to lay parts out, paste up boards, place components, and reflow things.

Good artwork plus unobstructed views outside

I have a lot of glass in my office, and I don’t want anything obstructing my backyard view. I also want to have enough visible wall space to be able to display more artwork than I had at my old house. I never want to feel like I’m working in a warehouse or a lab in some hidden bunker.

Desk Layout

I’ve settled on an L layout. This layout is great for unimodal workspaces (where you spend most of your time doing one thing) since you can maximize the work area you have without having to move your chair. To design an L area for unimodal work, start in the corner by placing your most-used components and work areas (for me, that’s my computer, soldering/development area). Then, slowly branch outward in either direction as you place equipment you use less and less frequently.

There are a few implementation-specific details I’d like to discuss, but first, here’s a picture of the setup:

The core of my L desk setup is the computer workspace

I built the computer desk out of walnut-veneered plywood with a steel telescoping square-tubing base that I cut and welded together. While it’s a motorized sit/stand desk, I almost never use it in the standing position. The desk is absolutely massive: it’s 34″ deep and 80″ wide. The extra depth accommodates tripods and light stands behind my monitor and gives me some hidden storage behind my filing cabinet under the desk for speaker amplifiers, EQ, and other pieces of equipment. It also gives me plenty of desk space — even in front of my clunky laser printer. My biggest issue with this left area of the desk is the inefficient use of space — the vertical monitor and filing cabinet form a wall that prevents me from easily interacting with anything to the left of my computer, so it’s typically where I just stash stuff temporarily.

The electronics bench is melamine-veneered particle board from Home Depot that I mounted into painted steel component shelving from Menards. To build this, you’ll need 36″ x 30″ end frames plus beams that come in 48, 72, or 97″ lengths. This shelving is fantastic — I use it in my garage, in the basement, and in my office. The desk is 30″ deep, which is about perfect. I wouldn’t want any less than that, but if it were any deeper, I’d be reaching too far over stuff for it to be comfortable.

The corner of the L is typically dead space; in my case, it’s perfect for test gear which tends to be really deep. I keep the gear at a near-45-degree angle and stagger the equipment into two groups.

Next is my “product area” — basically, it’s the area where my current project lives. I have access to mains power (with a variac, too), ethernet, USB, and HDMI. It’s where my soldering station and hot air gun usually live. I have an inspection microscope and wide-field overhead camera for sharing my work over video conferencing.

By the way, this sounds like a silly thing to mention, but you really do need a “product work area” — I’ve seen plenty of desk setups where people seem to forget that they need to actually, like, you know, work on things that occupy space. I have approximately 20″ depth for projects (this is important!), and when the desk is clean, almost 7 ft of linear space.

To the right of the product work area is the PCB assembly area. I have a separate monitor that clones my right-most desktop, along with a mouse and occasionally a keyboard. This area is where my vacuum pen and hot plate live — along with my rarely-used reflow oven. Having enough space allows me to assemble new boards even while I have a project set up.

An underrated aspect of my office that few people notice: I have two chairs — a Herman Miller Aeron as well as a National Aurora. These are very different chairs. The Aeron is more ergonomic and breathable, but the Aurora is more plush and luxurious. If I’m working for long stretches of time, I alternate between them to reduce pressure points. Having a second chair is also handy when I’m collaborating with friends or colleagues. Good-quality office chairs can last 20-30 years (or more) with very little maintenance, and sometimes you can get them heavily discounted from your local commercial office furnishing company if they have excess inventory of an older model they’re trying to get rid of. You really shouldn’t buy cheap plastic chairs at big-box stores; they’re just going to fall apart and end up in the landfill in a few years’ time.

Fast Context-Switching

I have to juggle tons of projects simultaneously, which means I have to constantly context-switch. The faster you can context-switch between projects, the more efficient you are.

My big realization last year was that keeping my office clean was (on the face of it, at least) diametrically opposed to fast context-switching. If you want your office to be clean, all your projects need to be neatly filed away, and all your tools need to be in drawers somewhere, out of sight. To switch between projects, you’d tear down your old project, put everything back in a box, file the box away, then set up the new project and start working on it. 

But it just takes way too damn long to set projects up. You’ve got to grab all the PCBs, displays, and extraneous components, plug them all together, find your debugger, re-build that custom wire harness to connect to it, open up the PCB design files to remember which test points were what, route those out to your logic analyzer, and reconnect all the USB cables for that junk. That can easily take 15 minutes or more of time, every time you’re switching projects.

One solution is to stop trying to keep your office clean and just leave everything set up all the time. Been there, done that. While that makes it fast to context-switch, once you are switched into the right project, your productivity drops substantially since you can’t ever find what you’re looking for (since everything is sprawled out, everywhere). It’s also rather embarrassing to appear to be calling from a pig stye whenever you hop on a Zoom call with colleagues.

Instead, I set out to invest in equipment and accessories to remove as much friction as possible when context-switching while still letting me keep my office clean.

Current projects get allocated a tray — I can quickly set up and tear down a project in a matter of seconds.

Project Tray System

The first thing I invested in was a project tray system. This lets me keep projects set up, ready to go. Projects still have a box assigned to them to store bare PCBs, parts, and other odds and ends — as well as completed projects (since I don’t quite get as much density with the trays).

I bought this food service 10-tier sheet pan rack plus a couple dozen lunch trays and they work great. I’m setting up a similar system at work right now with a few full-size trays for larger projects. You can opt for ESD-safe trays if you’re one of those people.

Wait, did the last rev of that board have the same bug? With project trays, it takes 5 seconds to plug it in and find out.

Making project trays useful

Project trays are only useful if you use them properly. Don’t move old versions of boards into boxes once you’ve built up new revisions — they should both be on separate trays so you can sanity-check things if necessary. You’ll really want to invest in all the cables and adapters necessary to keep everything hooked up at all times. Almost all of my trays have a 4-port USB 3.0 hub glued to them which allows me to connect power, debug probes, USB-to-serial converters, and any other gadget I need. All of that stuff lives on the tray for the lifespan of the project, so you’ll need to have a lot of duplication.

These Sabrent 4-port USB 3.0 hubs have individual power switches for each port, which is a total necessity for embedded development — you can quickly power-cycle your boards, debug adapters, and USB-to-serial converters. I really should have checked about volume discount pricing, since I own dozens of these between my home office and work. Unlike a lot of USB hubs, I’ve never seen one of these fail.

USB-to-serial converters are the standard mechanism for interacting with embedded Linux projects as well as some bare-metal systems, so grab a few four-packs of these FT232RL modules so you can keep everything wired up as you’re moving between projects. They have selectable 5V / 3.3V logic levels and break out all the special flow/control signals you’ll never use.

Additionally, since I do a lot of embedded Linux work, I have an ethernet switch on my desk — almost like a USB hub — ready to plug into. This lets me connect multiple projects simultaneously without fiddling with cabling under my desk. Since the switch connects to my home network, my projects can automatically pull DHCP leases and gain Internet access with no special configuration. This is much easier than trying to connect projects directly to your computer.

You could grab a small 5-port unmanaged gigabit switch for most casual work where your project’s networking stack already works without issue — but if you’re bringing up boards with buggy network stacks or you’re trying to benchmark specific performance criteria, spend the extra money on a managed switch like the 5-port Netgear GS305E or 8-port Netgear GS308E.

These switches have a web-based user interface that lets you configure several networking features — the most relevant to me is port mirroring. This feature duplicates the network traffic sent and received on one or more ports and sends it to a separate monitoring port that you can attach to your computer and view through something like WireShark. This gives you a ton of insight into the raw Ethernet frames sent and received by your embedded project.

And finally, it’s nice to have a three-channel HDMI selector sitting in front of an HDMI capture card so you can route any video sources from embedded projects to your computer for recording, streaming, or just for display. Even if you’re sitting right next to it, it’s still nice to have a window in the corner of your monitor with your embedded project’s output video instead of having to hunch over and look at a separate LCD screen all the time.

Simply having color-coded USB cables and extra sets of Saleae probes makes a huge difference

If you take some time to invest in the little stuff, it really goes a long way. For example, Saleae sells extra sets of test leads, so you can keep everything wired up with the correct channel order, and all you have to do is plug in the bus connector and load a project-specific preset in the software. You can buy packs of multi-colored USB cables so you can easily figure out which port goes to which device. I went really nuts and bought slim Ethernet cables and slim HDMI cables, and I love having them around.

A detail view of my wall of organizers illustrates the complete lack of order of parts filed away in the bins.

Other Organization Tools

Wall Storage Bins

I have a wall full of storage bins that goes back to my college days. They used to contain every single IC, transistor, and passive I owned, but these days, I only file away stuff that I find myself using all the time. It’s where I keep all my breadboarding parts, along with popular connectors, voltage regulators, transistors, and other ICs.

The bins aren’t sorted by category; instead, each bin has an incrementing number associated with it, and I have a database on my computer that will tell me the location of anything. The advantage is that I always know exactly what I have and where it is, but the disadvantage is I can’t really just walk up to the wall of parts and know where something is, since everything is sorted numerically. Everything has to be looked up or memorized. I’m not sure I would do it the same way if I had to do it again.

The reason why I stopped filing everything away in the wall of bins is that my BOMs started getting heavily specialized when I started working professionally — if I didn’t switch to storing parts in project boxes, the wall bins would grow uncontrollably. I’m putting a hard stop on buying more bins — I don’t want my office to turn into a warehouse. 

Lesser-used tools are stored in a chest next to a closet that houses old projects and SMD components. Photograph above chest by Alyssa Schukar. Watercolor by Gunther Temech.

Closet and tool chest

I have a modestly-sized tool chest that contains various hand tools, electronic component design kits, and other odds and ends. My closet is the central repository for project storage, SMD components, and all those dev boards, programmers, debuggers, and other odds and ends I’ve accumulated over time. I just use cheap plastic boxes from Target for most of the project storage.

The second “mechanical office” in the basement

Mechanical Office

I’m really focused on my main office in this post, but another trick I have up my sleeve is that I actually have a whole second office in my basement that’s geared toward mechanical work. This is where my 3D printer, CNC mill, and more mechanically-focused tools live. This space is more optimized for larger, long-term projects that don’t fit in my standard tray system. I have an old crappy soldering station and simple power supply down there, so I can do the bulk of my electronics work upstairs and then just transport the tray downstairs for integration when needed. It’s not perfect, but it could be worse.

The main gear I use

A desktop computer

I am absolutely perplexed by the number of laptops I see on people’s workbenches. For electronics development, desktop PCs are a total no-brainer. I encourage anyone serious about embedded engineering to build or buy a desktop for their office area. A basic $800 desktop computer built around something like a last-generation 65-watt Ryzen 3700X is about 30% faster than the top-of-the-line mobile CPUs found in the newest, most expensive laptops money can buy1Here, we’re considering code compilation benchmarks and cinebench scores, and if you splurge on a high-end desktop or workstation-class processor, your computer will literally be an order of magnitude faster than most laptops available on the market.

It’s really just a matter of physics: a thin-and-light 13″ laptop has a ~15W processor, while a heavy-duty 15″ laptop has a ~45W processor. Meanwhile, desktop computers usually start with 65W CPUs, and can go up to 220W for the highest-end parts. Desktops have better long-term reliability, and because they’re so easy to upgrade and expand, can be useful for 10 years or longer.

My computer is the most important tool in my office, so I didn’t skimp — I built a desktop around a Threadripper 3970X and 64 GB of RAM2I’ve read that my system can’t run RAM at maximum speeds if I move up to 128 GB, and I rarely exhaust my capacity. With this setup, I can recompile a (light-weight) Linux kernel in 30-60 seconds and create an entire Buildroot-based rootfs in 15 minutes, so it’s been a measurable boost in productivity for my embedded Linux-based projects.

Lots of monitor space

Designing a PCB usually involves simultaneous access to a device datasheet, reference schematics/web posts, PCB/schematic capture software, and potentially an IDE or sample code. I think four 1080p workspaces is about the minimum I need to be productive; otherwise, I find myself bouncing between windows and tabs way too often.

My current setup pairs an LG 43UN700-TB 43″ 4K monitor with a vertical BenQ 27″ QHD display, along with an old 22″ 1080p display I have on the side. I have an additional 1080p display on my electronics area that is cloned with this display to use as a reference when I’m assembling boards.

If you’re looking for something a bit less intense, two of my favorite setups to start with are either a single large-format 40″ 4K monitor, or two 27″ QHD displays and a smaller 1080p vertical one. Avoid monitors that require high-DPI scaling (basically any 4K monitor smaller than 40″) or ultrawide displays (which cost way more than just buying two HD or QHD displays).

Cartridge-style soldering station

I absolutely adore cartridge-style soldering stations, and will never go back to the dark ages. There’s a lot of gear I can recommend that you don’t buy, but this is one spot you should treat yourself to some luxury. I have an older JBC compact station, more or less equivalent to the CD-1SQF Compact Precision model. When I pick up the handle, it immediately comes out of hibernation and heats up to 350C in less than 4 seconds; put it back in the holder and it reduces to 135C. After prolonged inactivity, it will automatically turn off altogether, returning to hibernation. Try to score one off eBay like I did — it was right around $100.

Streaming-based logic analyzer

I love using my Saleae Logic Pro 16 for board bring-up since it works more like a digital/analog DAQ than a traditional logic analyzer. If you’re working through power sequencing issues on complex boards, you’re going to run out of channels quickly when using a scope; here’s where the Saleae shines: you can capture analog voltages from -10 to +10 V on each of its 16 inputs, along with all the usual digital logic analyzer stuff. It’s fun to wire the probes up to all the voltages, oscillators, and UARTs on your board and watch everything ramp up when you apply power.

Saleae also makes an 8-channel version which is a few hundred dollars cheaper. I think you’ll have to look at the projects you’re working on and your hourly rate to decide which one makes more sense. I’ll say that my projects tend to leak over into 9-16 channel territory only about 5% of the time, and usually, it’s more out of convenience than necessity. Also of note: if you’re a student they offer half-off pricing on all their products.

The analog capabilities really help offload many of the duties typically relegated to oscilloscopes. I know this is bound to trigger some folks (no pun intended), but if you have a Saleae Logic, I really don’t think you need a scope for a lot of day-to-day development. I took all these pics of my office before realizing I actually don’t even have a scope on my bench right now (instead, I’m in frequency-domain land via a Siglent SSA 3021X Spectrum Analyzer). You should buy a scope when you start doing a lot of power electronics/motor control, or if you’re doing very sensitive analog work or PDN diagnostics for EMC issues, but otherwise, you might be surprised how little you use it.

Speaking of analog capabilities, Saleae gets compared to Analog Discovery a lot, but they’re totally different tools. The Analog Discovery 2 is a built-down-to-a-price scope/spectrum analyzer/network analyzer/logic analyzer educational tool designed as a low-cost way to get students started thinking about this stuff. Since AD2 is not a streaming analyzer, you have to kind of know what you’re expecting to see so that you can set up triggers properly, and there’s an extremely limited buffer.3OK, I think there is some sort of live streaming mode, but it’s limited to something like 1 MSPS, and it’s digital-onlyOther than the logic analyzer capabilities, it’s a pretty crummy scope (30 MHz bandwidth, very limited voltage input range), and the 10 MHz spectrum/network analyzer is for stuff like audio-frequency applications, not RF. That’s all fine — it’s an educational tool after all. There are some other bells and whistles with respect to programmable digital I/O and SDK interfacing that might make it useful for a professional to own, but it’s definitely not a stand-in for other tools.

USB Hubs

This may seem silly to mention, but it’s probably my most-used tool. I have two main USB hubs — an Anker 7-port hub for my “office” side, and a 7+3 port hub from Sabrent for my electronics side. Anker hubs are extremely popular, but I’ve found that the 7+3 port model consistently dies after about a year (I’ve gone through several of them at home, in the lab, and at work), so I’d avoid that model.

Workflow

Next, I’d like to show how all of this stuff fits into a typical embedded hardware project where you’re assembling a PCB and bringing it up. I’ll also share some additional tools and accessories I use in my office.

Inspecting a paste job with my fly-out microscope camera and Billionaire cocktail

Paste Stenciling

To build up a board, I plant myself squarely in the middle of my electronics bench for most of the process. I love that JLCPCB ships used sacrificial material as a backing board for their full-size stencils; I reuse this material to build jigs to align the solder stencil. I use my inspection camera to look at how ridiculous my solder paste job is before moving to the next step.4I usually convince myself it’s “good enough” and then end up regretting it after cleaning up shorts for the rest of the night.

I used to have my inspection microscope directly attached to my workbench’s 1080p monitor, but changing inputs on it was a hassle, and now that I’m on video calls all the time I use a capture card to be able to share my work with others. Now, everything goes through OBS so I can get a live feed on my monitor, as well as stream it over Zoom, Slack, or Hangouts using VirtualCam.

Tools

PCB assembly

Placement

Next, I place parts on the board. I fly out my inspection camera to check alignment on critical parts, but otherwise, my monitor has my design up so I can reference things as I place parts. I have roughly 50 standard-value passives and discretes on reels that I use all the time; this saves a ton of time since I never have to worry about stock.

Tools

Hot-plate reflow and final inspection with the microscope

Reflow

Next is the reflow process. I use a hot plate (plus hot-air for double-sided boards) for almost all my hand-assembled boards. If it’s too complicated to hot-plate, I probably don’t want to hand-assemble it in the first place. At this point, the component trays go away and the microscope is still flown out. I pull out my hot plate and fume extractor, put the boards on the cold surface, and turn it on until the board reflows. I then set the board on the silicone mat — the insulative abilities reduce the thermal shock on the board. Then there’s a final visual inspection and clean-up with the soldering iron.

Tools

Board ready for bring-up

Bring-Up

Once I do a quick visual inspection, I’ll test the board for shorts and if that looks good, I’ll use my power supply to slowly bring up the board. If all the rails look good, it’s time to get the board on a tray and start the firmware work. Most of this is pretty typical: I use debuggers, logic analyzers, and TTL serial adapters — coupled with vendor or third-party IDEs, text editors, and toolchains — to scaffold out firmware and develop the project.

I want to point out one atypical tool I use quite a bit: my overhead camera. I collaborate a lot with folks, so an overhead camera is really useful to share project progress and record demos. I like having it mounted to a boom arm, allowing me to easily fly it in and out and position things perfectly. The camera I use has 10x zoom and autofocus which helps me keep the camera out of my way while still getting nice, tight shots of projects. Everything is routed through OBS, which allows me to stream, capture, or just view the feed. I also love being able to take quick screen grabs and share with friends or on social media platforms to show people what I’m working on. I get way better-looking shots than with my smartphone, and it’s actually faster.

Tools

  • Siglent SPD3303X-E triple-channel linear power supply. Nice to have, especially for analog work, but I could easily get by with a much-cheaper single-channel DC/DC model.
  • Rigol DM3058E multimeter. Cheap for a bench meter and doesn’t get lost or run out of batteries — plus it has basic data-logging capability and good precision. If I hadn’t been in such a hurry, I would have snagged something used off eBay, though.
  • Overhead HD-SDI camera (basically a no-longer-manufacturered generic version of this)
  • Modified microphone suspension boom arm to support camera
  • BlackMagic HD-SDI capture card for said camera
  • Luke Cavagnac acrylic on hardboard painting
 

 

Even just plugging in a keyboard and turning 90 degrees in my chair enables a minor escape from the usual hum-drum for a moment.

Conclusions

This setup works great for me, and I hope if you have similar workflows, you can apply some of what I’ve learned in your own work. Take a step back, look around, and think about the environment around you and how it influences the work you do. Your workspace probably reflects your own natural evolution as an engineer, but there’s no need to wait and leave it up to random happenstance (like I did for the better part of my career).

Instead, spend some time and consciously think about your workspace as a problem unto itself to solve; invest in furniture, equipment, and accessories to better align your space with the work you’re doing and I think you’ll end up with a place you’ll love to live and work in.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1.Here, we’re considering code compilation benchmarks and cinebench scores
2.I’ve read that my system can’t run RAM at maximum speeds if I move up to 128 GB, and I rarely exhaust my capacity
3.OK, I think there is some sort of live streaming mode, but it’s limited to something like 1 MSPS, and it’s digital-only
4.I usually convince myself it’s “good enough” and then end up regretting it after cleaning up shorts for the rest of the night.

Comments (2)

Fantastic post! As a SWE who is jealous of EEs for interacting with atoms more than bits, it was really cool to see your setup.

[…] Jay Carlson also posted about workbenches/shops, specifically using the tray method for organizing projects […]

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