Whether you are designing new products for a large corporation, tinkering with electronics as a hobby, or working somewhere in between, having the right test equipment for your needs is essential. Test benches are often seeded with equipment that’s been handed down from generation to generation (which is a testament to those manufacturers, indeed) or shared among multiple departments at a company. That said, the proper test equipment is not necessarily—or even often—the most expensive or the most fully-featured. Instead, the right test equipment depends on your level of electronics experience and testing needs.
In this article, we will examine the following core pieces of test bench equipment, outline considerations for purchasing equipment that meets your needs, and explore how test bench equipment evolves as skills and requirements become more advanced:
- Multimeters:Used to check continuity, resistance, voltage (V), VDC output, and low direct current (DC), among other measurements
- Power supplies:Used as a reliable source of DC power for developing and testing circuits under a variety of conditions
- Soldering stations:Used to create circuits by connecting electronics components
- Oscilloscopes:Used to measure change in electrical signal over time, which yields various data, including amplitude, frequency, rise time, distortion, and noise, among other parameters
- Accessories:Used to keep you safe and make testing easier
The Basic Test Bench
The basic test bench is ideal for high school and college students, hobbyists, and tinkerers who dabble in an infinite number of possible electronics applications, ranging from audio and communications to robotics and wireless…and a multitude of applications in between. For these enthusiasts, the right equipment should not only meet testing needs, but also be easy to use and not create obstacles that impede progress:
The multimeter, also known as VOM (Volt-Ohm-Milliammeter), is the most basic tool on your electronic bench, so choosing one that meets your test needs, is accurate, and is easy to use is key. For a basic test bench, handheld digital multimeters (DMMs) offer several benefits:
- They provide portability and accuracy at an affordable price.
- They are easier to read, do not require calculating exact value, and have no moving parts that eventually wear and tear.
- They are more accurate than their analog counterparts because they are free from parallax error (i.e., the perceived shift in an object’s position when viewed from different points).
Other aspects to consider when choosing a handheld DMM:
- The resolution and number of display digits
- Capability to measure true RMS (Root Mean Square) volts, which accurately measure pure and complex wave forms
- Capability to measure temperature
These DMMs from Extech and B&K are examples of handheld digital models ideal for the basic test bench:
If you plan to power up any maker board or want to provide power to your newly designed circuit, you need a reliable source of DC power for developing and testing circuits under a variety of conditions. For the basic test bench, we recommend a switch-mode DC power supply (SMPS), which uses a switching regulator to control the electrical power conversion from AC to DC. Although SMPSs tend to generate high-frequency noise that can affect surrounding sensitive electronics, SMPSs offer key benefits for basic test bench needs:
- They’re lighter and more compact than linear power supplies.
- Their efficiency ratings are higher-so run cooler-than their linear counterparts.
A variable voltage model with an upper range of 10A and 30V ensures you have enough current capacity to meet a variety of needs.
These DC power supplies from B&K Precision and Global Specialties are good examples:
A basic soldering station should minimally include the power unit, soldering pencil, stand, and sponge. In choosing a soldering station for your basic bench, look for one with variable temperature controls up to 450-550 degrees Celsius to meet most needs. Analog temperature control is adequate for most bench soldering, but a digital soldering station provides you with extremely high precision temperature control.
These soldering stations from Apex Tool Group are ideal for a basic test bench:
- WES51 – 50W Soldering Workstation
- WD 1002 – 95W Soldering Workstation
Students, hobbyists, and tinkerers often find that a handheld digital multimeter is all they need for testing circuits. However, these requirements begin to include troubleshooting, debugging, or diagnosing circuits or working with signals that involve buses, pulse signals, or fast circuits, then an oscilloscope (or O-scope) might also be needed. An oscilloscope measures change in electrical signal over time; those measurements are displayed as different types of waveforms that yield various data, including amplitude, frequency, rise time, distortion, and noise, among other electrical parameters.
Compared to other basic test bench equipment, oscilloscopes tend to be expensive, so you may not invest in one until you need to troubleshoot—not just measure—circuits. In general, we recommend selecting a portable model, such as the SDO Nano V3 from Seeed Studio, which is a compact and easy-to-use 32-bit digital storage oscilloscope with built-in signal generator.
Useful accessories for a basic test bench include an electrostatic mat and a wrist strap, which ground you and prevent component damage due to electrostatic discharge. Additionally, hand tools such as wire cutters and strippers, crimpers, screwdrivers, and tweezers are all indispensable hand tools when testing electronics.
Mid-Range Test Benches
Intermediate users might include educators, advancing students and hobbyists, as well as maintenance and repair professionals who build, troubleshoot, and fix electronics. In general, their test bench needs require more input/outputs, higher power/wattage, additional features, and products that are easy to set up, use, and monitor but that are robust enough to take care of the most demanding measurement needs. Mid-range test benches may also include equipment that is specific to an application or technology area.
Mid-Range multimeters have:
- Better resolution and more display digits
- Dual Displays
- Capabilities to measure frequency, period, statistics, histograms, and more
Mid-range multimeters, such as Fluke’s Bench Digital Multimeter NIST W/Data, should be calibrated at regular intervals, preferably yearly.
When choosing a power supply for your mid-level test bench, consider the types of tests you will be doing. For example:
- Do you need constant current and voltage, variable current and voltage, or both?
- Do you need a programmable power supply for manually setting output?
- Do you need a linear power supply for signal processing, data acquisition, and control circuit testing?
- Do you need an uninterruptable power supply (UPS) to help prevent interruptions in power?
- Do you need two separate power supplies to run both low voltage-low current and high voltage-high current tests?
These power supplies from Global Specialties are good examples of mid-range power supplies:
A mid-range soldering station has additional features and capabilities that enhance the soldering station’s performance and efficiency. These might include a graphic LC display, a fume extraction unit, solder tool recognition, heating plates, capability to update the station’s firmware, and automatic standby mode, just to name a few. This station from Apex Tools is a good example of a mid-range soldering station:
The biggest differences between basic and mid-range oscilloscopes are bandwidth and rise time (edge speeds). Whereas basic o-scopes have maximum bandwidths of less than 100MHz, mid-range models might have a maximum bandwidth of 500MHz. Increased rise time (edge speeds) capabilities help users more accurately measure pulses and steps like those found in timing signals, where accurate rise time measurements are critical to their design requirements. These oscilloscopes from Teledyne and Tektronix are good examples of mid-range oscilloscopes:
Useful accessories for the mid-range test bench include:
- A solder fume extractor, which promotes health and safety by extracting lead-based solder fumes and smoke using either HEPA or activated carbon filtration.
- A ring magnifier lamp, which makes small components easier to see and reduces fatigue
- A precision vice, which frees your hands from holding components while trying to work on them
These products from Jonard Industries, Luxo Industries, and PanaVise are good examples of useful accessories for the mid-range test bench:
- Jonard Industries – Soldering Fume Abs ESD
- Luxo Corportation – LED Magnifier Lamp
- PanaVise – PCB Holder, Multi-purpose vise
Top-End Test Benches
Top-end test benches are used by design engineers, certified electronics professionals, technicians who guarantee their work, and electronics professionals working with standards. Test benches for this group tend to include equipment that’s both calibrated regularly and specialized to their application. Whereas we saw mid-range test equipment gain features, inputs, and outputs for high-volume and multiple uses, equipment for this group tend to have fewer, dedicated features with the highest precision available and specialized uses, like these examples:
- Teledyne LeCroy HDO 4000 Series
- Tektronix TSG4100A RF Vector Signal Generators
- Keithley 2260B Programmable DC Power Supplies
- Apex Tool Group Soldering Workstation
- Keithley Model DMM7510 Graphical Sampling Multimeter
Whether you are a seasoned engineer designing circuits for the latest applications or you are an electronics novice testing your first simple circuit design, you will have the best testing results and experiences when your test bench equipment matches your testing needs. Key test equipment includes multimeters, power supplies, soldering stations, oscilloscopes, and accessories. The specific capabilities and features of test bench equipment evolve from minimal capabilities at the fundamental level, multi-capability and multi-function at the mid-range, and fewer, specific capabilities and functions at the high-end. In choosing test bench equipment, consider your current needs and budget, as well as how your needs may evolve over time.