Everything for Electronics
Posted in: Developing Perspectives (September 2008)

Economical Electronics

By Bryan Bergeron

Doing more with less is nothing new to those of us who work in electronics. Most electronic engineers face economic pressure on a daily basis from both management and the market. As enthusiasts, we often have the luxury of working at our leisure, of relatively flexible budgets, and of over-engineering circuit designs so to cover any likely operating constraints. In comparison, a five cent difference in the cost of a component can destroy the profit margin on a product run of 50,000, and can make the difference between commercial success and failure.

So what can you do, as an electronics enthusiasts, to minimize cost? I suggest the following:

Design with Cost in Mind
If you’re designing, for example an audio circuit, do you really need the latest, ultra-low-noise op-amps? Can you get by with an inexpensive, somewhat older chip without a discernable difference in quality? Are the components in your design available from suppliers in single units? Do you really need a printed circuit board, or can you achieve the same results with an all-purpose board? Are you over-embellishing your design with marginally useful LCD displays, meters, LEDs, and switches?

Shop Wisely
Use discount components and enclosures whenever possible. Consider purchasing components from discount suppliers, such as All Electronics ([url=http://www.allelectronics.com]http://www.allelectronics.com[/url]) and numerous other vendors on the web and listed in this magazine. While many of these discount suppliers offer seconds of lesser quality than components from Mouser, DigiKey, or Jameco, you may not notice a difference in performance.

Plan Ahead
Regardless of where you purchase components, plan ahead to avoid unnecessary shipping and handling charges that can inflate the cost of a project. It’s often cost effective to purchase the components for your next two or three projects at the same time, since you’ll save on shipping, relative to single purchases, and get a break for bulk purchases. Similarly, you can save on shipping by combining purchases with your friends.

Repurpose When Possible
Although working with new components and circuit designs is a pleasure, it can also be expensive. Keep a modest junk box filled with your discarded or newly found power supplies, circuit boards, and components. A soldering iron, heat sink clamp, and either a solder sucker or braid made from discarded coaxial cable are all you need to extract components cleanly from a circuit board. As a youth, I saw to it that every discarded radio and TV for blocks around contributed to my parts bin.

Use Your Imagination
When shopping for enclosures and hardware, don’t limit your searches to traditional sources. You can often find equivalent supplies in non-electronic markets. For example, I recently searched for three aluminum discs for a robot project. A popular online robot hardware supply house listed 18” discs for $48 each, plus shipping. In contrast, a visit to my local hardware store turned up 16” aluminum pizza pans for $15. Armed with a brand and product name, I searched on eBay, and found the same pans – three for $30, including shipping.

Try Kits
If your focus is construction, then consider one of the low-cost kits from the Nuts & Volts online store or one of our many advertisers. Kits are an economical alternative to piecemeal construction, in part because the kit suppliers buy in bulk, and you only have to pay postage from one source. In addition, you won’t find yourself 90 percent through a project to find you forgot to order a part.

I’d like to feature low-cost projects for cost-conscious readers in future issues of Nuts & Volts. If you have an innovative project that illustrates how to get the most out of an electronics budget, then please consider sharing your work with your fellow readers. I look forward to hearing from you. NV