I don’t have a particularly large or complex electronics setup, but that hasn’t stopped me from searching for the “perfect” way to organize everything. I think I tend to obsess over my plan because 1) it’s easy to feel like it’s critically important, and 2) it’s something that can be difficult to change. In software work I’ve really subscribed to the iterative approach to engineering, but for multiple reasons I have trouble applying it to electronics even though I feel like it should transfer. I think the first reason is that iteration often involves spending money, which feels more irreversible than spending time — I’ll talk about this more in my next post. The other reason is that iteration is more difficult when the work is physical, since you can’t automate tasks anywhere near as easily.
Anyway, I recently changed how I think about organizing my parts, and since I agonized over it for a while I thought I’d post about it.
My previous organization scheme: part-based
When I started out buying electronics, I left everything in the bags they got shipped in, but this quickly became unreasonable. I started looking around for what other people do, and it seems like the most commonly-talked about strategy — and also the one I had seen in the labs at college — is to have drawer units where each drawer holds a different part. So, I dutifully set out and bought a couple of those units, and started stocking them with the beginnings of an electronics inventory:
One thing I quickly found was that I was buying a TON of different components. If I wanted to experiment with a different diode, does that mean it should get its own drawer even if I only have 10 of them? What about that single 555 timer that I bought in case I wanted to play with it? And even for bread-and-butter parts like resistors, should I have a different drawer for every single resistor value?
Eventually I came to the conclusion that the “one-part-per-drawer” system requires a decent quantity of each distinct part in order to make sense. So, the next thing I did was I bought a pack of coin envelopes, to serve as a means of subdividing parts within the drawers. Unfortunately the envelopes don’t quite fit inside the drawers; for some I cram them in anyway, but for others I 3d-printed some boxes of the right size, and put ~20 envelopes in each:
This works great for the parts that I use in every project and need quick access to; I still use this scheme for resistors, capacitors, and leds. This also has the benefit that I can write more information on the envelope than was feasible to put on the drawer, so I can put the exact part number for later reference.
I thought this was about as well as I could do, until I found myself doing something quite different: I started buying parts for a project at a time, and until I was ready to start the project I would leave the parts in the shipping box. This was mostly out of laziness, but it made it much easier to gather the relevant parts when I finally was ready. I also noticed that I was still buying tons of new components; I tried to use ones I had bought before when I could, but each project usually used at least 5-10 new parts. These observations led to my new-and-much-improved system:
New scheme: project-based
The combination of 1) using new parts way more often than I anticipated, 2) noticing how much easier it is to start a project when all the relevant pieces are already together, and 3) running into the issue of not remembering why I had bought a certain part (which project was that particular regulator for? which projects did I decided an ATmega8 was ok and which ones are the ATmega328’s for?), all led to me to adopt this system that I had already begun using.
So, what I’m doing now is I put all the materials for a project into a quart-sized ziploc bag, and then I put all those bags into a box under my desk. Actually, I’m working on a new project that has multiple sub-projects, so for those I put all the quart bags into a gallon bag which then went into the box. The choice of ziplocs and a cardboard box aren’t final — I’m using them because I didn’t have to spend any money in order to test if I like the overall idea, but they’re actually working quite well. Eventually I might buy some larger stacking bins that might be easier and more compact.
So far this has served me pretty well, especially since I realized that a project has more components than just the electronic ones I had set out to organize: for instance, the PCBs, stencils, and any assembled versions need to be kept track of as well. In the past I had separate places where I stacked all PCBs, or all stencils, or all built boards, which was fine when I had a total of five projects or so, but the new system makes it far easier to find the parts, and also find a home for things that used to not cleanly fall into one of the piles I had (ex: where should I put notes about a project?).
Long story short, I feel way better about my organization once I made the switch from placing similar parts together, to organizing everything by project. I’m not sure why I was so convinced that things had to be organized by part; this change might seem like a small deal, but trust me it makes a huge difference.