Remote Tech Support Takes On More Significance In The Supply Chain

Nov. 4, 2010

Technical support is hardly a new concept. But under vendors’ increasing product development pressures, it’s becoming a more critical, and more competitive, part of today’s supply chain.

Tech support comes in many forms. Increasingly, though, it’s about partnering with distant organizations that understand your business and developing the connections and services that improve collaboration and speed time-to-market.

“Customer care and technical support organizations provide a direct line of sight to quality issues in the field,” says Matt Davis, principal research analyst for high-tech supply chains at Gartner Inc., the market research and consulting firm.

Recognizing a need for time-zone-sensitive technical support of its Inrevium brand FPGA prototype boards, Tokyo Electron Device Limited (TED) recently signed a contract with Aspen Logic Inc. of Bloomfield, Colo., to be its interface with the North American FPGA design community.

TED is a technical trading firm that provides semiconductor products and commissioned design as well as the development of original products through its Inrevium line. Aspen Logic provides logic verification, design, and implementation services targeted to Xilinx FPGA devices. Under their agreement, Aspen will support TED customers in the U.S. and Canada before and after their purchase of Inrevium development boards.

Underscoring the need for support, the TED/Aspen partnership, arranged by Asia Connect, coincides with TED’s initial shipments of its new Consumer Video Kit. The kit includes the newest and largest Spartan-6 FPGA that Xilinx produces with integral gigabit transceivers needed for transferring the data used in video designs.

At the same time, IBM has joined with Jinan Yinquan Technology (Yinquan Technology), one of the wholly owned subsidiaries of China VoIP & Digital Telecom, to establish a center for new product exploration. But the two companies also plan to focus heavily on tech support to local governments, enterprises, universities, and research institutions. IBM says it expects the partnership to bring Yinquan closer to end users by shortening technology development time and providing customers with higher-quality solutions.

The global distributor Premier Farnell plc also recently expanded element14, its collaborative community for design engineers, into the Asia Pacific region (Australia, China, India, Malaysia, Singapore, and New Zealand) where engineers can connect and access the latest production information, tools, and services, backed by online technical services from the company’s engineering teams. This follows the launch of element14 Web sites in August that specifically target Thailand, Taiwan, and South Korea.

“We are adding functionality and tools all the time and attracting over 75,000 visits a week now,” says Harriet Green, Premier Farnell’s CEO.

Altera Corp. cut development time and increased its design flexibility with a new industrial networking kit from Taiwan-based Terasic Technologies, an FPGA design services and boards specialist. Designers can now choose the networking intellectual property (IP) that works best for them through Altera’s online site and its industrial IP partners in one place. Michael Samuelian, director of Altera’s industrial and automotive business unit, says the plug-and-play usability of the kit can reduce deployment time by up to one year, depending on the complexity of the platform and how many products it supports.

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Plug And Play Designs
Xilinx also has made it easier for FPGA users to quickly find the right partner for their specific design and development needs by adopting widely used industry standards and opening up its own platforms for its alliance program members to ultimately provide “plug and play” FPGA design solutions.

“Customers are increasingly turning to FPGAs and expert third-party providers to design progressively complex products within shrinking time-to-market budgets, but the industry needs to streamline the process further through industry standards and open platforms to make FPGAs more approachable to a broader set of electronic system designers versus ASIC and ASSP (application-specific standard part) alternatives,” says David Tokic, senior director of partner ecosystems and alliances at Xlinix. The ultimate goal, he says, is to extend the breadth and depth of the alliance program and to develop a healthier marketplace that is tuned to specific end-market applications.

In addition to technical standards, Xilinx is establishing standard business terms for the licensing of IP and design services, promoting the availability of optimized IP and targeted design platforms, and piloting new business models to provide customers more choices to engage with alliance program members. Xilinx is also enhancing its site to include direct self-service access, enabling alliance members to provide customers up to date information about their company, products, and services.

Intel recently started working with KT Corp. to expand WiBro to new areas of South Korea and make the Korean technology compatible with mobile WiMAX technology. Intel Capital plans to invest $20 million in WiBro Infra Co., a joint venture with KT, Samsung Electronics, and KB Investment Co., as part of the deal. Intel and KT, formerly Korea Telecom, have also teamed up to open up the market for laptops and netbooks in South Korea with Intel processors and WiMAX chips.

By March 2011, KT expects to offer WiBro services to 82 cities in South Korea, covering 85% of the country’s population. (Laptops and netbooks with Intel Core and Atom processors along with Intel-embedded WiMAX chips became available in South Korea on October 1 from PC vendors, including Samsung, LG Electronics, and Acer.)

TSMC, meanwhile, already the world’s largest dedicated semiconductor foundry, hopes to improve its time-to-market by incorporating soft IP into its IP Alliance program to make soft IP more readily available for advanced technology nodes. TSMC plans to provide specific design documents and technology information through the program so its partners can optimize their soft IP to TSMC’s technology.

Dan Kochpatcharin, deputy director of IP portfolio marketing at TSMC, says the company will also work with its alliance partners to expedite soft IP readiness by aligning their development with TSMC’s process technology plans. “Given the ever-increasing need of first-time silicon success and early time-to-market for highly integrated circuits such as SoCs (systems-on-a-chip), close technical collaboration between the foundry and the IP provider is imperative to optimize this critical tradeoff,” he says.

Monitoring Performance
Gartner’s Davis says that embedded software, remote diagnostics, and connected products are all technologies that can automate the early warning of product defects and failure. “There are several vendors who can embed software or radio devices into products to monitor performance and diagnose failures as they occur. This information can be sent to warranty, care, and tech support organizations for immediate resolution,” Davis says.

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“Additionally, the data can be electronically aggregated as each issue occurs. These tools will streamline and speed up the early warning process with big benefits for both manufacturers and customers,” he adds.

Intra-organizational communications is also helpful. Davis says one high-tech manufacturer he works with has a weekly interlock meeting with product quality, customer care, tech support, and order management. “They diagnose the root cause of care and tech issues with a ‘5 Why’ process in which they use a decision three format to drill down on quality defects and identify the component causing the issue. This data is aggregated in a central database that uses statistical regressions to identify risk of widespread failure.” Davis says the company is then able to assess the severity of the failure and decide if it wants to proactively notify other customers who may be impacted.

On a much smaller scale, RF Alliance, a New Jersey-based manufacturers’ rep, believes it has taken steps to solve one vexing tech support problem with its clients—communications—by simply collecting application and sales notes, technical updates, and similar material, organizing it into a newsletter, and distributing it to its database, which numbers 3000.

“They really like it,” says Al Arbuckle, who heads RF Alliance, “especially since fewer engineers are attending trade shows and conferences.”

Company-sponsored tech webinars (available globally) and regional conferences have also proven to be popular and effective.

An Aerospace Perspective
The aerospace and defense (A&D) sectors have their own time-tested tech support methodologies. Stan Aronow, the research director at Gartner, says that from a semiconductor perspective, there are engineering sales teams in the aerospace and defense (A&D) sectors that help identify design-in opportunities. However, returns are usually few, so it’s not a big supply chain issue. He also says there are four levels of support in these sectors.

One is field application engineers (FAEs), who engage with customers on new designs. Another is field support engineers (FSEs), who use design software to embed component design into customers’ board design. Then there’s reverse logistics, where customer returns are processed. The fourth level would be quality and reliability engineers (QREs), who perform quality and failure analysis on replaced parts and feed the results to manufacturing and product engineering.

As far as outsourcing tech support in the local geographic area, Aronow says it would work for reverse logistics and maybe the FSEs, but not FAEs or QREs, who are most closely tied to the product engineering teams. “The most time-sensitive support areas engage FSEs and QREs who enable quick time to initiate or re-establish service,” he says. “Semiconductor companies designing into A&D (analog and digital) applications will compete on design service support, such as the FSEs for field programmable gate arrays.”

Tech support has also become a much sought-after job skill (see “Consumer Demand For Remote Services Potentially A $5 Billion Business”).

“Your technical and people skills matter to us because you will need those to get the job done and make sure our customers get their job done,” starts a job description for a senior technical support engineer at software specialist Silver Key, based in Cupertino, Calif. Key objectives for this position include providing feedback from the field to product management and engineering, helping to create referenceable customers, and creating goodwill in the installed base.

ICON-SCM is looking for someone with strong communications skills to handle technical customer support for its line of demand-supply planning and collaboration software. And, BVI Networks is expanding its technical support team for its video analytics business and other business intelligence technologies.

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