Feature: The growing role of distributors in electronics design

The changing dynamics of electronics design present a serious challenge to engineers who are becoming increasingly reliant on the distribution channel. Innovation and creativity are the essence of product development, yet these two characteristics alone cannot guarantee commercial success. Designers need to be supported by work processes, team structures and tools to help them achieve their goals.

The changing dynamics of electronics design over recent years have presented a serious challenge to engineers, with shrinking design teams and expensive tools adding pressure to the usual time and design constraints. The evolution of the Internet has delivered an overwhelming choice of products and manufacturers. As a result, engineers are becoming increasingly reliant on the distribution channel for support in managing their work.

The proliferation of information, products and tools now available on the Internet has triggered a change in behaviour among engineers who are fast acknowledging its potential as a ‘virtual design bench’. Additionally, with the downsizing of engineering departments forcing businesses to find design shortcuts to remain competitive, and the reality that engineers have limited time to source and compare the vast array of components and tools on offer, distributors are now playing an important role in re-modelling the way in which engineers source information, tools and services online. The need for fast access to the latest technologies has initiated a drive towards online design resources to support engineers throughout the design process and to help them get their projects to market more quickly.

RS Components, for instance, has developed the DesignSpark community, a free-to-access online design environment that gives users trusted and reliable technical information and resources, and draws together design information, user generated reviews and free-of-charge tools to speed up the design process.

Engineers are encouraged to participate in blogs and events to share their knowledge, and with more than 70,000 members registered since the community was launched in July 2010, there is evidence that designers are starting to explore, and even embrace, this new role of the distributor in the design flow. The distribution channel has progressed beyond merely providing product information, to a more synergistic approach where practical, intelligent resources are brought together and made readily available to design engineers.

There is further scope for distributors to contribute to the design process as exemplified by RS, which has developed a software tool to make complex, open-source designs available to engineers. DesignSpark PCB is a fully integrated, powerful and intuitive PCB-design package, downloadable completely free with no license restrictions on the terms of use and no time limit on the license. The package includes schematic capture, PCB layout, autorouter and manufacturing plots. The latest release of the software, Version 3, allows a real-life view of the PCB layout via its 3D Viewer and extra functionality enables it to be used with Spice simulation tools from several major manufacturers. It also includes enhancements such as component and circuit element grouping, and design calculators, which model circuit performance characteristics.

As a recent extension to DesignSpark, RS introduced its family of DesignSpark Synergy boards – ready-made, application-specific breakout boards that enable developers to plug into their ARM Cortex-M3 mbed microcontroller module to take advantage of its interface features, while providing easy access to peripherals such as I2S, USB and Ethernet. The board hardware designs are available in DesignSpark PCB, enabling developers to take the existing Synergy breakout board designs, modify, add and remove sections and re-publish their designs for the DesignSpark community.

RS’ experience shows that the provision of free downloadable design tools has scored highly among engineers, as has the availability of 3D CAD models for tens of thousands of electromechanical components, also downloadable at zero cost. The value of free design resources is undisputed.

High service distributors are structured to support the entire bill of materials (BOM), and businesses are now eager to draw on this consolidated service to alleviate time and cost constraints, and to secure their continued existence and growth. There are benefits all round. Linking to a large number of global OEM suppliers via a single distributor means that product developers can easily find parts that they may struggle to find independently, and component OEMs in turn gain access to a customer base that they would otherwise have difficulty reaching.

In today’s Internet era, effective fulfilment of the BOM, and the ability to quickly match engineers with the right products for their design, requires a forward-thinking management team with the prescience to invest in a robust eCommerce strategy. This was the direction taken by RS some two years ago when it engaged in an eCommerce programme to bring design engineers to the RS website. The lure of free and highly effective design resources and tools, combined with a smooth online experience, attributable largely to the company’s powerful parametric search capabilities has meant that engineers have flocked to the site for support with their designs, and eCommerce now accounts for more than 50% of the distributor’s total revenue. More features are being progressively introduced and a new live chat function now provides technical support and navigation around the website with a human touch.

There is no question that the Internet has shaped an irreversible trend towards online design support, creating endless opportunities for suppliers, customers and distribution, and RS is optimising its Search Engine Marketing activity to drive traffic to its website and to stay ahead of developments. By taking advantage of the Internet revolution in a global and growing electronics market, distributors are forming a vital role as a single point of reference for engineers to quickly access online design resources and tools, for rapid product development and time-to-market.




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