When automakers first adopted custom microcontrollers they designed with little outside help, "in every aspect, they were the experts," recalls Neil Krohn, who became a field application engineer in the late 1970s. Like other industries, automakers have since trimmed engineering staffs while increasing the complexity of the multiprocessor networks they're designing, so they're turning to suppliers and their FAEs for help getting to market on time.
"Now we have to make decisions on standard parts that meet their requirements. We even go out to assembly lines to help debug electronic modules," says Krohn, director of automotive field engineering at Freescale Semiconductor Inc. in Livonia, MI.
FAEs, once considered secondary to a company's design engineers, have become the lifeblood for component makers and other suppliers. "They're absolutely part and partial to our strategy," says Phil Gallagher, president of Avnet Electronics Marketing, headquartered in Phoenix, AZ.
Avnet has one FAE for every 2.5 sales people, up substantially from 1:7 a decade ago and a 1:5 ratio just five years ago, he adds. That type of change is common for companies in many fields.
Another sign of the growing importance of field engineers is their training level. It's rare to find a supplier who hires engineers just out of college. "Half my FAEs have masters degrees and many have actually worked at prime contractors," says Marc Couture, application engineering manager at Mercury Computer Systems' Defense Business Unit of Chelmsford, MA.
Freescale does hire a few "fresh outs" to augment its seasoned staff, but these newcomers serve an internship before graduating. Once they're hired, "they are mentored tremendously," Krohn says.
Vendors tout the capability of their application engineers, but they take pains to make sure they don't claim that their customers can't develop products without their help. Instead, they explain that suppliers know more about the inner workings of their product than a system engineer who's using it as one of many tools, so an FAE can provide insight into capabilities that might otherwise be missed.
"If customers think they can maximize productivity on our product on their own, they're generally wrong," says David Kleidermacher, vice president of engineering at Green Hills Software of Santa Barbara, CA. That's pretty understandable given the size of projects today. "Many companies have hundreds of developers doing millions of lines of code," Kleidermacher adds.
Another sign of growing importance is that companies now think about FAEs when they are developing products. "When application engineers are working with customers, our tools are used to view on-line assemblies so they can show how the parts come together," says Buzz Kross, vice president of manufacturing solutions at Autodesk Inc. of Tualatin, OR.
A number of functions handled by field engineers separate them from their counterparts who design products. While design engineers often work on a single development project for weeks or even months, application engineers serve many functions. FAEs often work with a variety of customers, responding to each of them when the need arises. "We're interrupt driven, we never have the luxury of working on the same thing for three to four months," Couture says.
Most application engineers don't just help designers. Many perform a range of jobs, sometimes teaming with sales people. Other times they operate independently. "Our FAEs do post-sales technical support and pre-sales application support along with some consulting and classroom training," says Mark Bohm, general manager of Abaqus' Great Lakes Region in Plymouth, MI.
This range of tasks is not the only challenge for the FAEs. They must be able know many of their company's technologies, and they must also be able to quickly adapt them for use in customer products. But at the same time, they must also have soft skills that augment these design talents.
"On the application side, we want engineers who are a bit more outgoing than engineers who don't have this type of customer contact," says Jean Heren, application engineering & field assistance Manager at Poclain Hydraulics of Sturtevant, WI.
One aspect of this is to mesh with the different cultures of each customer. Another facet of communication is to speak to many levels of staff, from intense engineers to corporate brass in either industry or the military.
"Application engineers have to have technical horsepower, and they have to be able to communicate with technical engineers one day and the next day talk to a two-star general who wants short answers that are easy to understand," Couture says.
The growth in FAE staffing helps companies provide more assistance for their customers, which helps increase sales. It also makes life simpler for FAEs, giving them enough time to dive deeper into their product areas. "In the past, FAEs had to handle eight to 10 product lines. Now they usually have two, so they're able to be more focused," Avnet's Gallagher says.
The need for focused knowledge goes both ways. FAEs must understand their company's product lines, and they must also know enough about the application to help customers improve their end products.
Most staffs have engineers who work with a few major purchasers and some who work with more smaller buyers. "For large customers, we want as much consistency as possible. With smaller customers and shorter term projects, engineers could deal with several companies in a month," says Rick Hatlen, application engineering manager at Poclain.
One stereotype for FAE's duties is that they are called in when the product design team is approaching deadline and can't get something to work. However, that model rarely works in today's fast-paced markets.
Many vendors now send application engineers out to companies on a fairly routine basis. "We recently began a program to be more proactive, sending FAEs out to customers instead of waiting until they call with problems," Kleidermacher says.
Other companies are adjusting their staffs, setting up separate groups for pre- and post-sales assistance. At Mercury, this is split. "We're trying not to let FAEs get sucked into customer support, a group that's expanding. Our FAEs focus more on pre-sales support," Couture says.
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