Electronic Design

Guiding The Design Engineer Through The Credit Crunch

The support of a technically competent, multichannel distribution partner certainly plays an important role in helping engineers address design challenges they face during any project they may be working on. This kind of design support can be even more critical during an economic downturn.

Very few industries remain unaffected by the downturn in the global economy and, naturally, the electronics industry isn’t immune to the effects of the macro-economic climate. However, the industry does have some advantages that make it better placed to weather a downturn than many other sectors.

Not least is the fact that the sector has already faced—and survived— its own downturn at the start of this century. Many of the companies that made it through the early 2000s are already lean and highly competitive and, therefore, well positioned to face the challenges ahead.

At the same time, the sector itself is more important than ever—not just in its “traditional” industrial, automotive and consumer markets, but in many other areas. Ultimately, it delivers the advanced energyefficient solutions that will help us reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and meet emission targets, for example, or create advanced medical systems that will help to improve patient care and quality of life.

The challenge for today’s electronics OEMs is making sure that they do everything they can to survive the current economic situation while positioning themselves to take full advantage of the upturn when it finally arrives.

This means challenging design engineers to deliver a competitive advantage by developing ever more advanced and innovative applications while continuing to drive down cost and shorten already tight time-to-market windows. And the services available from distribution partners can play an important role in helping engineers address these challenges.

Even in prosperous economic times, the role of the modern electronics distributor had evolved far beyond straightforward supply of products. One reason for this is the change in the nature of the electronics industry itself and, in particular, the growth in small- to medium-sized original design manufacturers and specialist design houses.

By definition, many of these companies have always faced pressures on internal resources and budget. As a result, they have looked to distributors for support. In a downturn, support from the distribution channel becomes even more important. This becomes particularly true as design teams look to maximise competitive advantage by focusing on their core competencies rather than each and every discrete element of an application design.

For most engineers embarking on a new project, the initial contact with a distributor is during the product search and selection process. This is why a fundamental element of a distributor’s service offering must be to provide tools and materials to help an engineer make informed choices and rapidly identify the best components for evaluation and prototyping.

On this front, the Internet has come into its own in recent years, although conventional catalogues also remain important. Indeed, research shows that a significant number of engineers will use both online and hard-copy materials in a complementary manner—for instance identifying a product in the catalogue and then accessing a distributor’s Web site for product comparisons, additional data, and product purchase.

To address the requirements of today’s engineers, a distributor’s online resource must be more than simply a combination of a Webbased catalogue and a shopping basket. It must add real value to the distributor/engineer relationship.

For example, from Farnell’s experience of how customers interact with its own Web site, it’s clear that services supporting rapid product identification, such as high-speed search engines and tools that allow for identification of product alternatives through side-by-side comparisons, are particularly important.

In addition, even where a distributor stocks many hundreds of thousands of products, there may be a specific part that an engineer requires yet isn’t on the linecard. In recognition of this, distributors can help engineers save time and money through a commitment to source products outside of their primary portfolio.

From initial design-in through prototyping and evaluation, engineers will often turn to a distributor for technical support, especially for elements of a design that fall outside of their core competencies. In providing such support, it’s important for the distributor to recognise that engineers will want to access support services in different ways, depending on the nature of the enquiry.

Some, for instance, may want to talk directly to a qualified technical operator, while others may be happy to submit a query by e-mail or an online form. Others may be more comfortable using instant-messaging services, such as Farnell’s “Live Technical Chat,” in which a dedicated support team is available to answer technical queries. Irrespective of the way that support is sought, the ability to handle technical queries at all stages of the development process is more important than ever before.

Then there’s the distributor’s role as a provider of information, something that’s vital for the time-pressured engineer. At its most basic level, distributors need to provide access to datasheets and manuals.

However, there’s the potential to offer much more. Regularly updated information on new products and technologies—particularly if that information can be delivered “proactively” to a user’s desk by way of regular e-newsletters and alerts—can help engineers to stay current. The same is true for dedicated technical publications that look at how to address the requirements of specific application areas.

As well as knowledge of new products and technology trends, today’s engineers must also understand the potential impact of existing and forthcoming legislation on their applications.

Distributors are well placed to support engineers by using their expertise and access to a broad cross-section of suppliers. This will ultimately create dedicated collateral and provide assistance that can guide engineers through the minefield of modern legislation such as RoHS and REACH.

Time pressures dictate that, in addition to helping the engineer easily identify the best product for the job, distributors must also be able to quickly deliver that product in the appropriate quantities.

This applies equally to large orders and small quantities, the latter being highly likely in the early stages of any project development. As an example, Farnell’s own strategy for supporting engineers is to have no minimum order quantity, and that it will guarantee nextday delivery for all orders placed before 8.00pm.

While product pricing may seem less important at the initial development stage, in the current economic climate it’s essential for engineers to take a longer look at the bigger commercial picture. In particular, they have got to understand the impact that their choice of technologies will have on the commercial viability of the end product.

Again, the distributor can help in a number of ways, not least by demonstrating a commitment to minimising product costs when it comes to volume production. This can include systems that ensure attractive pricing on high volumes and innovative schemes. For instance, Farnell has an initiative to provide various price breaks based on combining similar products when ordering.

The relationship between engineers and distributors has evolved in recent years as design teams increasingly look for support that goes beyond access to a wide range of components.

Such relationships are important in times of economic prosperity. However, they become even more critical in a downturn, when designers are forced to work harder than ever to deliver that competitive advantage.

Choosing the right distribution partner based on ability to support the engineer will help companies to weather the current economic environment. Moreover, they can capitalise on the opportunities that present themselves when the upturn begins to happen.

JAMIE FURNESS is Farnell’s global technology and development manager.

TAGS: Automotive
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