If you're a design engineer who's struggling to understand the growing proliferation of electronic components on the market, and you're trying to learn about all those parts while juggling multiple projects, here's a tip: You can get help from distributors.
Sure, distributors want to sell components. They're looking for your business. Increasingly, though, they're willing to provide design and engineering help to get it. "They want a design win," Robin Gray, chief operating officer of the Electronic Components Industry Association (ECIA), told us. "So the big guys have a number of different ways they can help an OEM design and build a product."
At Avnet's lighting lab, engineers can measure the performance of lighting in OEM products.
Big distributors such as Avnet Inc., Allied Electronics, Digi-Key, Element14, Future Electronics, Mouser Electronics, and AutomationDirect employ design services and application engineers to give themselves a competitive edge. For OEM designers, the benefit is far more technical insight on components than they could get with a Google search.
"Sometimes I sit in their office, helping them debug boards," Eliza Nelson, an Avnet field application engineer, told us. "Or they give me a list of issues that they're having, and I work on finding answers for them."
Field application engineers typically get involved when a block diagram is available. Increasingly, though, distributors such as Avnet (which has 200 of these engineers) and Arrow say their field engineers show up at the prototyping stage and stick around until the OEM moves to volume production. "Distributors have branched out to provide cradle-to-grave support," Ian Basey, vice president of marketing for Avnet, told us at a recent Avnet media event. "It's no longer a fulfillment view of distributors, where we have parts and we fill their orders."
Nelson said she has helped engineering teams design missiles, telephones, satellite modems, slot machines, software-defined radios, and graphical interfaces for airplanes and vending systems. She has also worked with customers in Avnet's lighting lab to take measurements of the illumination and color of lights used in OEM products.
Though there are no hard numbers on how many design engineers rely on distributors for design help, the ECIA says most electronics engineers are familiar with such services. The question is whether those who are new to electronics, particularly mechanical design engineers, know that the services are available and viable.
Nelson said OEM engineering teams typically tap into design services when they are unfamiliar with the breadth of available components, or when products aren't working as expected.
We all have the Internet, and we can go search for what we need. But at the end of the day, that's not the most efficient way to find products. Most engineers are looking for someone who can jump in and provide expertise at any point in the design cycle.