Configuring the Ultimate Prototyping Workspace

Introduction: Configuring the Ultimate Prototyping Workspace

I'm a prototype developer, so I build a lot of stuff for a lot of different clients. I have tons of tools, parts, and tasks to cram into a small NYC workspace, and I'd like to show you how it's done.

My priorities when building a workspace are simple:

  • Space within reach should be filled with tools and workspace, not parts
  • Should be easy to organize and ready to add and remove stuff
  • Cleanup should be easy, and accidents hard
  • Moving myself, projects, tools, and parts should be effortless.

My workspace is divided into a few areas:

  • The wire cart, with hand tools and prototyping supplies
  • The wall, with small-part storage, jigs, and lighting
  • The storage racks, with big parts, big tools, archives, and work in progress

I belong to a shared workspace, so I need to maximize every inch of floor. It's all built around an 80" antistatic workbench, which I set at waist height.

A high workbench is great. I can type while standing or sitting, mitigating RSI and back pain. It also lets me drop my chair and bring my project closer to my head to minimize neck pain.

The bench is divided into an electronics area on the left, and a programming/modeling area on the right. I need to do both, often simultaneously, which is why I need such a long workbench!

The chair is refurbished streetside junk and is definitely not ergonomic. It's overdue for replacement.

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Step 1: The Tool Cart

Every hand tool, adhesive, lubricant, and jumper lives on the tool cart, along with cleaning solutions and safety gear. I'm a lefty, so putting all my tools on the left side of my workspace puts all my strippers, cutters, and screwdrivers within reach.

Having everything on a rolling cart allows me to move it into position, and even into other rooms when necessary. The magnetic strip and mesh top let me grab tools and drop them back with no effort. There's no reason for me to get lazy and use the wrong tool, and it makes cleanup faster.

The top rack has every tool I need to keep close - cutters, strippers, screwdrivers, calipers, alcohol, and a scrap basket. The magnetic strip holds pliers, scissors, knife, and thin screwdrivers for accessing deeply-recessed screws.

There's also a 3D-printed rack of Altoids tins - these are pre-made field kits that I can grab on the way to a job site. Two have common parts for field repair. One has a Saleae logic analyzer, another has a Bus Pirate, and the last has an assortment of FTDI adapters, XBee dongles, and other common interface doo-hickeys.

The middle rack has adhesives, lubricants, cleaners, and prototyping supplies. I'll generally move an entire bin of jumpers onto the workbench instead of plucking the individual wires I need - I always need more than I expect!

The bottom rack has larger tools that I use less often, which is why it's piled up. This is also where messy supplies like cleaning rags and steel wool live, so they don't deposit residue on lower racks.

And yes, we're a DeWalt shop.

Step 2: The Electronics Workspace - Top Side

The left side of the bench is dedicated to electronics, and fabrication in general. I really do try to get it this clean and empty before I leave the office - space is always at a premium, for tools, parts, and partially-assembled gizmos.

To the left, I have my soldering iron and binocular soldering scope. The water bottle is for soaking the soldering sponge and lubricating the developer. Stay hydrated! All of my soldering tips are stored in the iron stand, so I can swap them without having to cool the iron first.

Above, I keep my power supply, scope, multimeter, and specialty probes. I leave the leads attached to the instruments and tucked behind them - the extra setup time of screwing in a probe makes me less likely to use the tool. It's important to secure the test leads behind the instruments - they love flopping out and committing suicide on the soldering iron.

Below, I have a fume extractor and two trays of soldering gear. This fume extractor works in two orientations - I can just flip it on where it lies, or pull it out and prop it up to get more airflow. Honestly, I don't really use it unless I'm soldering something very fluxy or crusty, or if another person is at their desk.

The left tray has non-conductive pokey things, my impressive tweezer and pick collection, USB peripherals, and office supplies. I cannot express the importance of high-quality tweezers when building electronics - my set of German-made Technik tweezers makes components infinitely more controllable.

The right tray has the desoldering pump, Pieco Paste Press full of no-clean gel flux, ChipQuik, solder, braid, replacement sponges, extra leads, and other soldering essentials.

I keep the most important tools - picks, tweezers, flux, pump, solder - at the front of the trays so I can access them without pulling the entire tray out.

Step 3: The Wall

When you run out of ground-level space, you have to build upwards! It's the New York way.

My three small-parts organizers store the bits and bobs that I've used in projects before, and am likely to use again. It's impractical to mark each part with a model number, so these are more general-use parts for solving problems, than samples for designing prototypes.

This is also where I keep supplies like hot glue sticks, zip ties, Dual Lock (way better than Velcro) and ribbon cables.

There's also the Hail Mary drawer - when all else fails, I cross my fingers, dive in, and hope that Lady Luck has stocked the right components.

I gave up labeling the drawers ages ago. It's just not worth the work.

You'll notice that I only have 10kΩ, 0.1µF, and 10µF drawers. Other components are sorted by value in the boxes above. I just have too many of these parts to fit in them. Everything seems to be 10kΩ, 0.1µF, or 10µF...

To the right, a wire rack holds vises, helping hands, extra lighting, and an old project. There's no such thing as enough light, and the correct jig makes soldering and rework way easier.

Finally, one of my monitors is pivoted away from the keyboard, towards the electronic area. This is specially for datasheets, reference materials, and terminals that need to be consulted while both hands are full of electronics.

Step 4: The Computer Area

The right side of the workbench is set aside for programming and 3D modeling. I often write firmware, lay out boards, and design enclosures as I prototype and build electronics, so having both workspaces available is critical.

The hot-air rework station is technically part of the left side of the bench, but it didn't fit. There aren't any wires behind it, so it can blow hot air all day without roasting my battlestation.

I use a Magic Trackpad 2 for board layout, coding, and general computing. It's comfortable, and makes zooming and rearranging windows easy. I also have a Razer Deathadder (left-hand version!) and mousepad ready to deploy for 3D modeling, graphic design, and editing audio and video.

My keyboard is an Ergodox EZ with Gateron Blue switches and no-name PBT keycaps. It's extremely loud, very comfortable, and makes me look like a 1337 h4xz0r.

Yes, my workstation is a 2014 MacBook Pro. Deal with it. I highly recommend using a laptop as a desktop if you can - it saves space, and you can bring your sensitive client data home with you. The hard drive is for backups, which you should absolutely do, and is encrypted.

Everything can be cleared out of the way for taking measurements during modeling. The grid placemat makes it easier to photograph, scale, and trace objects, and it keeps me from gouging my bench when I cut stuff!

Note the webcam on the boom stand. I can move this around the bench for video calls, live demos, time-lapse videos, progress pics, and more.

The terrible cable management, especially with the USB hub, is deliberate. I need to switch peripherals and move things into odd positions so often that bundling cables would just get in the way.

Also, if you're building electronics, a high-quality industrial USB hub is critical. This one is USB 3.1, provides up to 50W of juice, has isolated ground, and has individually-fused 5V output lines for each port. It's expensive, but worth it.

Step 5: The Storage Rack

The black plastic storage racks, to the right of the workbench, hold tools that are too large for the rolling rack, along with bigger and more advanced parts.

The top shelf is all tools - my Dremel drill press and accessories, board preheater, CD/DVD reader, desoldering iron, big ole box 'o adapters, JTAG and ICSP programmers, and high-voltage probes.

The second shelf is mostly larger electronics parts. This is where my piles of Raspberry Pi's, Arduinos, Teensys, sensors, displays, and other toys live. The white boxes are full of assorted SMD components that don't fit the books.

Having to do a little snooping for parts sometimes takes a minute, but having everything in dedicated bins helps significantly. On balance, it takes less time to find the 34.7kΩ resistor in its bin than it would to painstakingly sort every resistor into a thousand tiny labeled boxes.

The next shelf has wall warts, wire, cables, and bins for work-in-progress. I take the entire bin to the workbench, so having everything in a pile doesn't affect productivity. I also keep a stash of old leftover PCB's - it can be useful to consult past designs, and they're also handy heatproof work surfaces and for testing part footprints.

The bottom shelf is all small-parts organizers. These are labeled and in bins, making it easy to find and pull the entire set of fasteners or headers. Keeping the nuts with the bolts saves lots of time and desk space!

I hope I gave you some inspiration for your own electronics battlestation! You can be organized without having to painstakingly sort every little component, and you can keep hundreds of tools within view in a tiny office. Good luck!

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