The U.K. has always enjoyed a thriving electronics design community, despite movement of production to the Far East. The manufacturers’ authorised distributor group in the U.K., AFDEC, presented a report recently by group market analyst Aubrey Dunford explaining how the U.K. can remain a powerhouse for electronic systems design. So what can distributors do to safeguard their status and support design activity in the U.K.?
“The U.K. has an outstanding reputation for technical innovation. That continues strong. This is largely due to small startup companies, but we have always been weak at capitalising on their success as they grow,” observed Steve Rawlins, CEO of Anglia Components. “Volume manufacturing is often undertaken abroad, and when the original founders exit then very often the company ends up being sold to a foreign buyer also.”
Distributors agree that continued investment in face-to-face interaction is still very important and that technical training to a high standard is required.
“A good design-in always relies on person-to-person interaction in my experience,” Rawlins said, adding that the distribution field application engineers (FAEs) should understand the products in their portfolio at least as well as the vendor’s in-house team that they are increasingly replacing. These FAEs also should be trained to the same level on the same courses, often by the product developers, he said.
“Although some distributors remain reluctant to take an FAE off the road for three days to allow this to take place, the best are willing to make this investment,” he said.
Stuart Edwards, U.K. technical manager at Avnet Memec, agreed that technical training is invaluable if the distribution sector is to support design activity in the U.K. He believes there is no replacement for face-to-face support, particularly when offering highly complex systems-on-a-chip (SoC). In this situation, FAEs are required to support the designer with everything from demonstrating dev kits to debugging their application, and therefore they must have the highest level of technical training.
“At Avnet Memec, over 50% of the team that visits customers has a degree in electronics,” said Chris Shipway, U.K. general manager at Avnet Memec. He also said that the company is looking into starting an apprenticeship scheme next year. Avnet Memec will participate in a U.K. government-sponsored scheme where the 16- to 18-year-old apprentice receives three years of technical training while being effectively employed by Avnet Memec.
Attracting graduates and supporting young engineers is undoubtedly a way that the U.K. electronics industry can gain a competitive edge. Yet Chris Sullivan, head of global solutions marketing at Premier Farnell, pointed out that the number of electronics graduates the U.K. produces is still falling. In fact, the number of graduates obtaining a first degree in electrical or electronic engineering fell from 3940 in 2003/04 to 2765 in 2009/10.1
“There are significant weaknesses in terms of subjects that are taught today, especially power electronics,” Sullivan said.
Farnell recently sponsored an independent report from TFI that revealed several design challenges, including increasing time pressures, incomplete or inaccurate information from relevant sources, and difficulty comparing options and alternatives.2 This can only be worse for new engineers migrating from university to the industry, who face a significant lead-in period. Sullivan suggested that this is a place where distributors could help.
“New engineers need an environment that has all the information and tools they require. We need to make these tools and resources available in a simple to use way, at the right stage of the design flow,” he explained, adding that online design resources can be a very efficient way of doing this. Farnell has created “The Knode” on its element14 online community, an intelligent online search and knowledge tool that helps engineers select the right solutions.
“The U.K. needs to maintain its lead. We are seeing a lot of design starts here but there are an increasing number in Asia and it’s important to redouble our efforts and to raise the level of design expertise \\[in the U.K.\\],” Sullivan added.
Another distributor championing the use of online resources is Mouser. Mouser.com continues to drive the company’s business with more than 75% of new customers coming to Mouser online. Mark Burr-Lonnon, the company’s vice president for EMEA and APAC, said that engineers need quick access to the latest technologies to maintain the U.K.’s strong design sector.
“Making sure our Web offering has the right information and resources is a heavy focus for us,” he said. “There is a drive to bring the newest parts to the newest designs as quickly as possible.”
Arrow recently launched an online application platform for LED lighting that combines multiple tools for selecting and optimising LED solutions. The company says it is intended to remove trivial calculations and time-consuming datasheet browsing.
“Online design tools are important for really low-cost designs because you can’t necessarily afford to send out an engineer out to every customer that comes along,” said Steve Clark, director of engineering and marketing for Arrow in the U.K.
“Face-to-face technical support is most important, though, and we have lots of that too,” he added. “A lot of people think that an Internet connection is enough to find out what parts are out there, but it doesn’t tell you what parts are the winning ones and which ones are available.”
Clark emphasised that knowing which parts are available is a key service distributors can provide for the U.K.’s design engineers, saying that 70% of parts sold only go to one customer.
“Manufacturers like to dabble,” he said, explaining that sectors like industrial electronics need to ensure continuity of supply for five to 10 years. He also highlighted obsolescence as a key challenge for the U.K.’s electronic design community, saying that a distributor is well placed for visibility across the wider market and can alert designers to these issues.
It’s clear that the U.K. is still seen as a design hotbed, as recent entrants to the market have emerged.
EG Electronics, based in Sweden, has just opened an office near Brighton to service the U.K. market. The company’s country manager, John Fitzpatrick, said that component manufacturers scaling back their presence throughout Europe creates an opportunity for distributors.
“They rely on their distributors to maintain sales and achieve design wins,” he said. “This could be perceived as a withdrawal of support for U.K.-based customers, but on the flip side, this can generate a more positive attitude towards the distribution channel.”
Fitzpatrick agreed that having the right people with the right skills is the key to best supporting design work.
“Former OEM employees are finding new roles within the emerging technical distribution channels,” he said. “Their specialist skills are highly valuable, not only to the distributor but to developers and markets of end products, which brings a shift or an end to the general distribution mentality.”
1. Engineering UK’s 2012 Report, available at www.engineeringuk.com/what_we_do/education_&_skills/engineering_uk_12.cfm
2. TFI’s report is available at www.element14.com/community/docs/DOC-37271