By Robert McGuire
Driven by the Internet, multichannel distributors have come a long way in terms of the level of service they can offer their customers.
Today, customer design, manufacturing, and sales functions are very often spread over more than one country or continent. This trend began with the need to use lowlabour- rate countries to manufacture goods that would be cost competitive. In more recent years, it has also become increasingly common for the product design itself to be moved overseas.
These types of trends, along with pressure to continually shorten product design cycles, have helped drive the evolution of the range of services and product availability offered by multi-channel distributors across multiple geographies.
Rapid delivery of the broadest range of products has always been central to the raison-d’être of electronic component distributors. Before engineers can confidently work with one distributor, they need to be sure they are getting access to, and fast delivery of, the ideal components for their design. For the distributor, this requires a firstrate logistical setup. As an example of the magnitude of the operation required, Farnell currently offers over 480,000 product lines from stock with same country next day delivery plus around 700 new items added weekly.
As well as a broad choice, customers seeking to achieve a leading position in their sector also need to have access to the very latest technologies. This could be a smaller or lower-power-consumption device than had been previously available, or one that integrates extra functionality to help reduce overall design component counts and board space requirements.
In pre-Internet days, when engineers simply received a new catalogue annually, it was tough to keep abreast of, and get access to, the very latest components in what is a very fast moving sector. Interim mailings and visits from field sales representatives went some way to plugging the gap. But the arrival of the Internet presented the perfect tool for multi-channel distributors to keep their customers up to date.
To make informed decisions about which components to use, design engineers need data and often technical support too. For multi-channel distributors, the Web has part of the answer to this need by allowing them to provide comprehensive libraries of technical data sheets.
MAKING LIFE EASIER FOR TIMEPRESSURED ENGINEERS
Giving customers additional technical support requires more than just the power of the Web. Distributors need to employ engineers ready to address often very specific technical questions from customers. It is important to allow this communication to take place via a choice of methods to give engineers the chance to select the way that best suits their circumstances.
The options should include phone, e-mail, and services such as Farnell’s Live Technical Chat messaging service. With customers spread around the world, it is important that technical support be provided for as many hours of the day as possible with local language capability.
Innovative distributors can do more than supply product choice with high availability backed by good all-round technical support. In difficult economic times especially, services and initiatives that make life easier for customers and can help give them a competitive edge are crucial.
The distribution channel can help customers smooth the ebb and flow of product supply and ensure that the components on customer bills of materials (BoMs) are available as they are needed. Coupled with some innovative thinking, the Internet is central to the implementation of many initiatives.
An example is the i-Buy E-procurement tool, which incorporates many of the features of an expensive ERP system to provide tailored e-procurement functionality but at zero cost.
At a time when various legislative programs such as the Restrictions on Hazardous Substances (RoHS) can complicate the process of product selection for the design engineer, initiatives such as Farnell’s BoM Conversion Service can save both time and resources.
This type of service uses a dedicated team to match non-compliant products listed on customer BoMs to the very latest RoHS-compliant lines and then returns the suggestions to the customer within 48 hours.
NEW WAYS OF WORKIING
The evolution of the Internet has seen the emergence of interactive online communication via the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. These are powerful ways for individuals to communicate but they don’t focus on the needs of electronic design engineers. It is therefore important for distributors to also consider how Web 2.0 functionality might be harnessed to specifically benefit their customers.
Dedicated sites aren’t just sources of product data, design tools, and product information for electronic design engineers, they’re also portals to facilitate interaction, collaboration, and information sharing with immense potential value. They can help engineers discuss and overcome specific problems they are encountering, foster learning, and speed the transition of ideas into finished product designs.
Farnell’s recently launched element14, a technology portal and e-community for design engineers, is perhaps one of the first examples of how the immense potential of Web 2.0 can be used to support electronics design activity. Users have their own login and a fully customisable homepage that identifies to others their areas of knowledge, expertise, and need. Element14 also incorporates Google Translate to help break down language barriers between collaborating members from different locations in the world.
Evolving working practices, multigeography design teams, and widespread Web access have changed the way electronic design engineers take their designs from concept to finished product. Multi-channel distributors need to make sure they take full advantage of the power of the Internet as well as create an excellent logistics model and sufficient technical resources to keep up with the demands of the modern engineer.