In 1999, during the dot-com explosion, Internet start-ups looked at the business-to-business world and decided it could do a better job than traditional distributors of connecting people and products. Their battle cry was "disintermediation," the elimination of the distributor who stood between the component supplier and the OEM. Electronics distributors sat up with a start and began scrambling to put together their own Web strategies. The Web-savvy mocked them as dinosaurs.
But by mid-2000, the dot-com revolution had almost completely evaporated. And today, four electronics distributors have among the most engineer-friendly websites. Their sites consistently rank high in surveys asking this magazine's readers what sites they bookmark and visit the most often.
Making it easy
When components buyer Kabir Chahal goes to the website of Chicago-based Newark InOne to buy parts for the engineers at the electronic design services company GDA Technologies Inc., he doesn't need to know that exact part number. He can locate the part he wants using only a partial number or a short description of the part's function. And while he only needs to buy a handful of components to produce a prototype, he also nabs the cost for 500,000 so that GDA can tell its customer how much the bill of materials (BOM) will cost when the product hits production. "At Newark, I put in the description and I get the data sheets on the part." Chahal says. "Ninety-five percent of the time it works."
Newark recently upgraded its website's search function so that a single box can work for all types of component searches.
"We launched this new search engine in September, and the sole purpose was to address customer needs," says Mike Yantis, website director at Newark InOne.
Yantis and his team wanted to create a component search tool that was as simple as the most popular search engineers.
"We were able to do it through a one-box-entry, which is based on Google, Yahoo, and MSN," Yantis says. "We wanted the one-search-box to search on attributes, part numbers or keywords.
"The goal was to combine the parametric search function together with a standard, part-number search interface of part numbers.
Newark spent two years working on the upgrade, gathering customer information along the way. "Once we had a prototype developed, we let customers try it out, and we optimized it from there," Yantis says. "Customers can see their own pricing in their search results." He notes that engineers can access live technical support without leaving the page. They can also sort their results by manufacturer and go direct to a manufacturer's website from the search results page to find what they are looking for.
Growth: Newark InOne is one of several distributors whose Web traffic has shown increases.
Reaching beyond the line card
Some distributors offer search opportunities that extend beyond the company's inventory base. The Promiere database from Avnet, for example, catalogs 12 million parts, while Avnet itself inventories less than 500,000 active parts. You can go to the Avnet website and search its active parts at no cost. The full Promiere website is a paid subscription service.
Avnet built the Promiere database in partnership with Dallas-based i2 Technologies. Avnet also keeps the Promiere database agnostic. "It's unbiased," explains Glenn Bassett, VP of strategic business development for Avnet Electronics Marketing, the Americas. "We don't sort the parts to Avnet's benefit." Bassett notes that Promiere covers virtually all parts that are available on the component market. "Everything but parts that are not yet in release," Bassett says. "If you want to look at the newest and greatest Xilinx part, for example, you'll be better served going directly to Xilinx. But we have it once it's in release."
Promiere also offers a BOM scrubber, an automated function that takes the components in a bill of materials (BOM), runs an availability check and offers alternatives to parts that have reached the end of their lifecycle. It also provides detailed data on the BOM's components. "The BOM scrubber lets you research the components and get a data sheet," says Bassett. "Engineers may know that a part has failed or was too noisy. They can click on the equivalent parts to see alternatives."
Bassett notes that Promiere provides security that keeps even Avnet from looking at what its customers are doing with Promiere accounts. The feature allows customers to load in their purchasing data so they can compare parts based on the individual pricing they receive at their contract manufacturer.
"We have large manufacturers who use Promiere and they load confidential pricing, so there are security issues," Bassett says. "We host it at a third party, i2, and we have a huge firewall between Promiere and Avnet."
Another website in the component industry prides itself on going backwards in time. PartMiner Inc. maintains a large component database that reaches into corners of the industry so customers can access obsolete or hard-to-find parts. The database brings together 32 million components from 1,800 manufacturers going back 50 years.
Beyond availability and procurement information, the database includes technical information for its engineer customers. "We have a proprietary taxonomy on the components," says Mike Manley, president of PartMiner. "We have data sheets on the top 25 attributes and we display these for the engineer. This is based on what engineers say are the most important attributes."
PartMiner's database also has a function that allows the engineer to compare the component to other parts to see if there's an upgrade or newer version. Engineers can also compare attributes. "You can search by the attribute and pose questions such as, 'Does this component work at minus 50 degrees,'" says Manley. "You can see it side-by-side with other parts."
PartMiner has a new initiative to gather information on Chinese components. "We're trying to add Chinese manufacturers into the database," Manley says. "If you're looking for a replacement for a part that you used to get in Europe, you may find that it's now being produced by a Chinese manufacturer," Manley says.
Size doesn't matter—when it comes to databases)
Distributors have been competing on numbers for years, with one database claiming 10 million, another claiming 20 or 30 million. But you can take one part and view multiple versions, thus turning 5 million parts into 20 million. The more rational thinkers point out that the total number of parts in the database is not nearly as important as whether the database is accurate and contains all the parts you need.
Accuracy of distributor databases ranges from 95 to 98 percent, according to AMR Research. That number is deceptive, since there might be high accuracy among newer parts and lower accuracy in older components. Accuracy was of more concern during the depths of the downturn when some companies had fewer resources to tend to the labor intensive work on keeping the database up to date and accurate. Accuracy has improved right along with functionality in recent years.