Distributors for decades have been taking on services that their suppliers and customers no longer can – or want to – manage themselves. In element14’s case, those services have evolved into printed circuit board design and prototyping, which at one time would have put the distributor in competition with customers that provide the same services.
That hasn’t been a problem for the catalog distributor, and other channel players echo the same sentiment. As customers have become more proficient in component-level design, simpler board designs no longer provide significant differentiation for OEMs and EMS providers. “We’ve had customers come to us and say ‘we need a board design,’” said Andrea Koritala, global head of technology integration and strategic programs for element14. “One of the litmus tests we’ve always had here is ‘what does the customer want?’”
Engineers, like most workers in the tech field, are doing more with less. At the same time, the pressure to get new products to market quickly has increased. Element14 began centralizing its design service offerings online a little more than two years ago. Called the Knode at that time, the site provided a one-stop shop for a variety of engineering design solutions. Its tools enabled engineers to move from concept to final production, including component research, board design, development and prototype manufacturing capabilities. Element14 further expanded its offerings with the acquisition of Shenzhen Embest Technology Co Ltd (Embest), a provider of embedded system development boards and tools, in July of 2012.
Distributors say board design is a natural evolution from components sales, kits, cable harnessing, programming and other value-added services they provide. “We already have linkage with the customer,” said Koritala, “There is a trust factor and awareness. Our name is behind it.”
Distributors do have some advantages in the board design space. They carry hundreds of suppliers and thousands of data sheets and often have a view into suppliers’ technology roadmaps. Since distributors buy large volumes of components and supplies, they can offer cost-effective solutions. And many distributors already service the small-volume factories that manufacture prototype boards. “We are making the entire process as seamless as possible,” said Koritala.
Element14 emphasizes it is sticking to simple board designs; “this is not the ‘hard stuff,’” said Koritala. Customers still hold their own IP. “Customers just want to make a purchase that brings them closer to end-product development,” Koritala adds. Element14 has streamlined the procurement process by assigning part numbers to its customers’ boards and holding a number of those assemblies in inventory. And in July 2014, the company initiated a same-day ship guarantee.
“We assist our customers with getting the right parts together; building the board; verifying compliance [for environmental and other directives] and assembling all required documentation,” said Koritala. “That’s all directed at reducing customers’ time to market.”