Electronic Design

Distribution Companies Must Take Design Seriously

Modern engineers want more than just parts from a distribution company. They want an end-to-end solution, one that provides a platform to research, communicate, and collaborate. 


Originally, distributors distributed, and only distributed, generating their revenue from the sale of products and solutions. Now, design—and the role that they can play in the whole design process—is increasingly becoming a major focus for distribution companies.

In 2013, e-commerce has become the channel of choice for most customers. At Farnell element14, online orders now account for 75% of business in Europe, a figure that continues to grow as our Web platforms have evolved to offer an improved service to customers. The main concern of distributors when they first turned to retailing online was with simplifying and streamlining their transactional Web site and process for customers.

But herein lies the first point that needs to be stressed. Nowadays any distributor worth its salt has mastered this basic role. A high-service distribution company will have developed a stable platform for managing vast catalogues of stock, supplying millions of different products via the fastest delivery method possible. Distributor offerings are geared towards giving engineers what they want, on demand, and at the most competitive price possible. Companies that couldn’t do this have been left behind.

Engineering Expectations

However, conducting business via an ecommerce interface creates other considerations for the distributor. Most purchasers, whether they are engineers or professional electronics buyers, have certain expectations when shopping online. Distributors need to make their online buying experience as seamless as possible, simplifying transactional pages and introducing loyalty schemes to encourage repeat business.

Ask e-commerce developers to name the most important part of the user’s experience, and many will reply accessibility—finding products quickly and easily. That’s why Farnell element14 has made ongoing improvements to its online search system. Its approach is twofold. As well as visible feature upgrades, including Punch Out/Round Trip Catalogues and tools like i-Buy, designed to give customers additional control, the company ensures that these improvements do not degrade search performance.

When these two points are taken together, the competitive distribution marketplace and expectations of “more” from customers, it is understandable why distributors have moved towards bolstering their post-sales offering. Rising customer expectations are forcing distributors to push deeper and deeper in to the design process to hold their competitive edge.

Initially, distributors added basic product information and guides to their sites, just as a rich pool of engineering knowhow has been made available online as distributors exploit their extensive network of global supplier relationships to aggregate content such as app notes, datasheets, video tutorials, blogs, manuals, white papers, code snippets, and design examples. Even this approach is now becoming dated, though, surpassed by a more dynamic and relevant body of information—a community forum.

Peer-To-Peer Collaboration

By providing a forum where engineers can engage in peer-to-peer collaboration, advice, and discussion, the support offered by a distributor can be bespoke, without dedicating hours of resourcing to copy writing. The community is mutually beneficial for the distributor as well, providing an additional edge of promoting innovations whilst supplying the type of ongoing market insight that can give you the edge over competitors.

The Knode section of the element14 Web site, a space where the company compiles a one-stop shop of components and accessories, alongside tutorials, questions, and research, is sourced entirely from contributions made by our online community.

However, the competitive advantage that can be gleaned from this area is diminishing. Yet again, the industry is looking at the next area it can add value to. For instance, some distributors are providing their own printed-circuit board (PCB) layout and editing tools, such as Cadsoft’s Eagle, and are investing in software and intellectual property (IP) that they can supply alongside products. 

Distributors have already integrated board-level integration of the catalogue into mainstream PCB tools. Now, from within the familiar development environment of most PCB/CAD tools, engineers can directly access and check the information of millions of orderable parts in real time. All of this comes from the insights obtained from distributors’ own communities, in particular how engineers want their distributor to offer an end-to-end solution to speed up time-to-market.


So let’s go back to the question we started with. Why do distributors need to take design seriously? As outlined, modern engineers want more than just parts from a distribution company. They want an end-to-end solution, one that provides a platform to research, communicate, and collaborate.

It’s in distributors’ best interests to provide this assistance, as the core business offering alone is no longer enough to distinguish them from their competitors. Their value to the customer is found by assisting engineers in seeing their product designs through to fruition.

But there is a constant shift occurring in what qualifies as having the “edge” over the competition. Customers are aware of how the best distributors are moving into the design process and expect the same of others. After all, it’s here that they can have the greatest impact on the time-to-market of a product, so no engineers are going to select anything but the best distributor they know. As a result, distributors need to take design seriously simply because they can no longer survive as a business if they do not.

Chris Sullivan, global head of solutions marketing, joined element14 in 2011. He has a background in systems engineering, semiconductors, and parallel processing architectures.

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