Defining Distributor Design

by Chris Keuling, Associate Editor

KeulingThe electronics distributor plays an important role in the electronic components industry, selling engineers the components and subsystems they need to use in their designs. A growing number of distributors also provide value-added services such as design support to their customers. With the combined pressure of the shrinking design cycle and expanded technology availability, it’s important for engineers to be able to talk to someone who can help them throughout the design process. We recently cold-called a number of major distributors without identifying ourselves as press and simply asked what design services they perform.

Before calling up the distributors, we spoke to Shawn Thompson, Director of Engineering of Pivot International, a company specializing in design services, because we wanted to start the process by finding out what exactly a company specializing in design will do for a customer.  He explained to us the process of how his company services its customers.

1. Sketching out concepts for a product on paper and make wood or foam replicates (this is where you start the software design process)
2. Working on the electrical and mechanical components
3. Creating a plastic prototype
4. Fully testing the software code and the prototype (EMI, ESP, regulatory)
5. Evaluating the prototype with the customerJuly 2008 Image 1
6. Building the final prototype
7. Hard tooling and waiting for customer and regulatory approval
8. Jumping into full production

Once the baseline was established, we started a flurry of phone calls that yielded mixed results. We found that most distributors still don’t perform design services, while others have sales engineers that will talk through their products with customers and help them pick out the right product. However, there are a few select distributors in North America that we found do more than just showcase and sell products. Here are some of the distributors providing design services.

Distributors Providing Design Services 

Avnet assists customers in specifying, developing and designing FPGAs and ASIC solutions using cores, third party IP, and a design methodology flow. The development kits are designed for more complex IP-intensive solutions and will consult them to the customer. They perform both software and hardware consulting for system integration and do use white papers, but it’s not a major part of their services. They also use benchmark reference kits.

Digi-Key’s design services are done by a support group from ten to 12 people that all specialize in different areas. They do not get involved in a full design because they are mainly focused on passive components and integrated circuits, claiming that all of the other functions of a component revolve around them. The support staff does not do development kits and uses very few white papers and application notes. Their ability to help customers with reference designs varies based on how extensive the designs are. They are willing to help explain applications and application notes and provide engineers with ideas about specifying parts for a device.

Future Electronics doesn’t offer design consulting per se, but their services are only with their parts that a customer will buy from them.  It’s a free service that they offer to their customers, but there seems to be some catches when it comes to the services that the customer may not hear about. They may work both on the system and subsystem levels of software and hardware, but what they will do for a customer is very general and mainly depends on the customer’s needs. They work with development kits, white papers, and reference designs more for their suppliers than their customers and leave a lot of it up to the customer to do themselves. Another word of caution: the source I spoke with at Future said that they “will give more service and higher priority to the customers that buy more units from them.”

Bell Microproducts will help customers get the parts that they need and will help design systems or subsystems. They work primarily with software and will give customers the correct rate solution configuration that they need for their product.  The distributor does not do any work in white papers, reference designs, hardware, or development kits.

The Experience

The experience of calling up several of these top distributors was an eye-opener at how little most distributors will do outside of sales to help their customers. These findings are based on calling a selection of the top North American distributors, according to EE Times’ 2008 Top 25 Global Distributors supplement. It’s not surprising that the four distributors among the randomly called companies that actually do design services are within the top ten in the world in distribution