If you're an engineer at a small-to-medium-size manufacturing company in need of design services, you may find yourself calling on your component distributor to help turn your idea into a manufacturable product. Large distributors like Phoenix-based Avnet Inc. and Arrow Electronics Inc. of Melville, N.Y. offer a multitude of design services in order to ensure the sale of components. These distributors also sell a number of sophisticated design services.
Passive component distributors and catalog distributors also offer support to their design engineer customers. These services range from BOM scrubbing and parametric search capabilities to tech support groups that can advise design engineers on part selection as well as availability, pricing, and lead times.
Since distributors work with hundreds, often thousands of customers, they get a wide view of the component universe. This experience can be critical for design engineers who want to know how emerging technology is playing in practical applications. Distributors can also help design engineers move products to market at a greater speed, by offering technical support and at times assisting in the actual product design and semiconductor chip programming.
Component Lifecycle Issues
The distributor's component knowledge and understanding of supply chain issues is a big plus in the design process. That knowledge can be used to help get a product to market quickly as well as to make sure the product can be manufactured without problems. "The value is time to market with solutions that are both manufacturable and sustainable over product lifetime," says Cary Eskow, director of technical programs at Avnet. "We help manufacturers develop a product based on components that are readily sourceable. That requires access to supply chain information as well as component lifecycle knowledge."
Lifecycle issues are critical to ensure the product can be manufactured over its expected lifetime. Distributors have supply chain tools than can identify soon-to-be-obsolete parts. "We have customers bring in a bill of materials with 1,000 parts, and if one of those parts is obsolete, they have problems," says David West, VP of marketing and design services in North America for Arrow. "Our risk manager tells them where the part is in its lifecycle."
Distributors also take a global look at the component supply chain. This comes in handy when U.S. manufacturers design products that will eventually be produced outside North America. "Manufacturers face challenges and their production moves over to Asia," says West. "We can track the component sourcing as manufacturing moves overseas."
Design With System Knowledge
In addition to choosing parts based on supply chain issues, distributors know how individual parts and programming interact together in an overall product. "We bring knowledge of how components work together in a system," says Avnet's Eskow. "Regardless of the performance or integration of any individual device, a number of associated areas such as analog power must also be designed carefully to ensure the system operates reliably. System-level tasks like the optimum PCB layout are often critical to meeting overall specifications.
The system knowledge distributors bring to the design table comes from experience collected over hundreds, even thousands of customer engagements. This is helpful whether the distributor assists the customer with design or recommends an outside partner design firm. "We bring in access to 10,000 customers, so we understand what our customers need when we offer design services or recommend outside design teams," says Chris Miller, Arrow's director of field application engineering. "We marry the design partners with our customers based on the vertical industry and the required design services."
The "Incentivized" Distributor
Distributors are directly rewarded for successful design. If the distributor can help a customer get to market quickly with a successful product, the component sale will follow quickly as well. "We take the view that our engineers are an extension of the customer's own engineering team.
While acknowledging that manufacturers have a number of choices in design support, Eskow notes that manufacturers using distributor design services are often able to retain a greater portion of their own IP. "There is a number of alternatives available to customers for front-end design assistance. A company could use an outside contractor to do a turnkey design, perhaps even a prototype, but the IP and knowledge of how to do it would remain outside," says Eskow. "If the customer requires a product enhancement, you have to go back to the outside company."
Passive Component and Catalog Distributors
While catalog distributors and those specializing in passive components don't send out teams of field application engineers to help customers design and program their products, these distributors still offer a range of services to support design engineers. Sometimes it's component data that a customer needs. "We're in the business of providing the design engineer with a content-rich catalog and website," says Rob Birse, marketing manager at Allied Electronics Inc. in Fort Worth, TX. "Also, our sales force has gone through training with new products so they can support design engineers." He notes that Allied works to obtain and present images of its components which can be a help to design engineers seeking visual conformation of a component.
Chicago-based Newark InOne, staffs its tech group with electrical engineers who have knowledge of the components and their applications. "Whenever a design engineer comes looking for a certain component, our tech group can help with any questions since the group includes EEs," says Jeff Shafter, Newark InOne's SVP of products. "Design engineers can also go to our website to conduct parametric searches or initiate a live chat with our tech group."
Components International Inc. in Brooklyn, NY works with design engineers to integrate the company's LCDs. "We work directly with design engineers in designing all aspects of LCD integration," says Nathan Hecht, CEO. The company also offers support in scouting for components that are difficult to find. "We have engineers in-house to work with component engineers to locate hard-to-find or obsolete parts."
Distributors that specialize in passive components offer rich product knowledge to the design engineering community. "When you're a specialty component company like TTI, it's important to have technical detail at the desk," explains Craig Conrad of TTI Inc. of Forth Worth TX. "We need to be able to answer any technical questions that design engineers may have about our products."