You can’t do good work without good tools, and investing in your work environment is a great way to show that your organization values quality of work and planning ahead. Whether in academia or industry, I have seen people order a constant trickle of items from Amazon to meet their robotics needs. Literally dozens of packages arrive with tools and parts, eventually resulting in a set of tools and components that are standard almost everywhere, and that could have been purchased in one fell swoop. If you’re starting a new lab or robotics startup, get ahead of the game and purchase these items early. Your employees’ and students’ work will go much more smoothly and you’ll have a more productive organization (and better morale, because people won’t be kept waiting on parts!)
This list is based on my own experience working at 2 different robotics startups and 3 different academic labs. The list is partially for my own reference, and partially to help anyone who is starting their own robotics lab or startup.
The first part of the post is what I feel every robotics lab or company should have. Then, depending on your specific focus, you should also grab items from the second part of this post, which are grouped based on what your lab or company specializes in.
I have taken the liberty of linking to Amazon for many parts on the list. I did this to make it easy to see exactly what I’m talking about, and also to allow purchasing multiple items from the list in one fell swoop if you so choose. Some are just representative, but for others I have specific recommendations for brand, size, etc. Items that I specifically recommend are highlighted in bold black. Full disclosure, I use affiliate links, so if you click through the links and make a purchase, I may receive a cut, which I use to help run the site.
I’m trying to make the list as complete as possible, and plan to continue updating it as I find more items that I think are broadly useful. If there are items or categories I’ve left off, let me know in a comment!
Unless you have a central office or office administrator, these are basic necessities for any academic space. I’d actually recommend that you buy all these items at a local office supply store (in one big trip!), since Amazon tends to only stock multi-packs of all of these things. You should have packing tape, but you don’t need a 6-pack of them.
- Don’t worry about getting fancy notebooks, since many people are opinionated and will use their own anyway. Just make sure there’s something to write on in a pinch.
- Ruler (metric and imperial are both essential if working in the US)
- Whiteboard markers (it doesn’t matter how many of these you buy, they will all disappear)
- Extra Staples
- Tape (yes, you really will want and use all these types):
- Zip ties
- Label maker
- Extra labels for label maker
- AA, AAA batteries (consider rechargeable)
- Cable wraps
- Highly recommended for handling cord tangle, and I suggest buying at least 200.
- You will use more than you think.
- Broom and dustpan
- Even if you have cleaning staff, someone will make a mess mid-day.
- Trash cans
- Bank of small drawers for small components
- Buy about 2x as many as you think you will need. Trust me, you will use them all.
- You can also find ones with larger drawers, which are handy for bigger components.
- Toolbox or peg board
- Standard boxes for larger parts and components
- I like the stackable Akro bins linked above. They come in a variety of shapes, colors and sizes. Whatever system you use, try to stay consistent.
- Buy about 3x as many as you think you will need. You will use them all eventually.
I don’t know of any labs that hire outside photographers. Most likely, your graduate students/software engineers will be your photographers.
- Don’t cheap out on this, shaky video is very unprofessional for your lab or company!
- Cell phone tripod mount
- Unless you plan on buying a DSLR or full video camera, this is a must-have.
- Mount-anywhere tripod
- For when you need a special viewpoint, or even for on-robot mounting.
- MicroSD card w/adapter
- Way to read the MicroSD card (built-in to many desktops, or buy external USB adapter)
- USB wireless adapter
- These are essential for one reason: they allow you to connect to both a robot’s internal network and the wider Internet, two networks that are usually not connected to each other. This allows you to Google problems that you are having while still connected to the robot, and results in huge increases in productivity.
- Make sure it is Linux-compatible
- HDMI cables (short)
- HDMI cables (long)
- HDMI to Mini DisplayPort adapters
- Ethernet cables
- Low-quality USB2 hub*
- Powered high-quality USB3 hub*
- USB3 extension cables
- External hard drive(s)
- Extra mice and keyboards
- KVM switch (use one mouse and keyboard for multiple computers)
- Other display adapters as needed
* I’ve always found I needed hubs for one of two reasons:
- You don’t have enough ports on your computer or the robot’s computer for peripherals like mice, keyboards, or speakers. Use a cheap hub.
- You have critical robot components that need to be connected (depth camera, robot arm, etc). Use a USB3 hub, preferably one with external power.
- Power strip(s)
- Extension cord(s)
- At least one 50-foot and possibly a single 100-foot, or more depending on the size of your space.
- Screwdriver set
- Ratcheting wrenches in various sizes
- Allen/hex wrenches (both metric and Imperial)
- Tape measure (ensure metric and imperial marks)
- Box cutter
- Digital calipers
- Spare batteries
- Miniature screwdriver set
- Tool box
Lists for Specific Situations
Electronics Tools (Advanced)
For labs that are making their own electronics components and hookups. Often, people are opinionated about tool brands, and there is a wide range of quality out there, so ask around with your students or employees before purchasing specific items.
- Soldering iron
- Soldering wick/suction tool
- Chip puller
- Heat gun
- Connector crimping tool
- 120V outlet testing tool
- Variable desktop power supply
- Wire strippers (at least down to 24 gauge and up to 14 gauge)
- Diagonal cutters
- Hookup wire in multiple colors, red and black for starters
- Heatshrink in various sizes
- Power connectors of your choice (Anderson powerpole, Molex, etc.)
- Arduino, case, USB cable, and power cable
- Raspberry Pi, case, and power/monitor cable
If you’re working with industrial robots or just like DIYing your experiment setups and/or lab space, I’d also suggest the following:
- Ball-peen hammer
- Rubber mallet
- Torx drivers
- 3-4-5 square
- Pin punch set
- Dial indicator
- Needlenose pliers
- Driver bits
- Drilling bits
- Bubble level
- Clamps of various sizes
- Threadlocker (such as red Loctite)
If you’re doing Institutional Review Board (IRB) studies, you’ll want some extra equipment to ensure the security of your data and make any auditing processes easier.
- Locking file cabinet
- Combination lockbox with keys to locking file cabinet
- Additional external hard drive(s) to store sensitive data
- Hanging file folders, tabs, and labels for storing IRB consent forms
I hope this list helps you get your lab or startup up to speed faster without having to make countless orders and paying for rush shipping. Any crucial tools I forgot? If so, just let me know!
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