Supporting tomorrow’s purchasers

Farnells technical manager UK, Ireland, Nordics & Eastern Europe, Rob McGuire, shows how distribution innovations are helping electronics buyers in the higher education and research council sectors Anyone who has studied electronics will remember the distribution catalogue on the classroom bookshelf. For as long as electronic component distributors have existed, so has their relationship with higher education and research. With the capability to supply small quantities of a vast range of components, quickly and from a single source, distributors are well configured to provide just what the learning establishments need.

Just as electronics has changed massively over the last two decades, so have the services provided by electronic component distributors. The internet has made it easier to provide quality technical support, plus new, efficient ways of placing and managing orders. Also, most distributors are no longer restricted to catalogue reprint dates for the introduction of new products. Farnell, for example, has initiatives to get new technologies and components from niche suppliers to their website in approximately 10 working days, letting customers quickly consider them for new products. In higher education, this drives the early adoption of new technology and helps students keep up to date with new technology.

For distributors, it is important to support institutions and individuals who help the UK maintain its position and reputation as a world leader in the development of new technology. Farnells onecall business reflects this. Set up over ten years ago, onecall aims to bring all the benefits of the Farnell distribution model but tailored specifically to the unique needs of the higher education and research sector. Onecall works closely with the National Universities Working Party on Electronic Components (NUWPEC) to ensure what it offers the higher education and research council closely reflects their evolving needs.

The profile of higher education in the electronics sector has changed significantly due to technology, economic factors and perception.

Regarding technology, whatever happens in national and global economies, the demand for new electronics technology is insatiable and relentless. The companies at the sharp end, those developing and innovating new processes, techniques and devices that enable the functionality in the end products, keep on delivering. Every electronics company comprises individuals who have gained their core knowledge and skills through education. This underlines the importance of quality technical education, part of which is having easy, cost-effective access to the latest components, equipment and tools to put classroom theory into practice.

On economic factors, the shift of the UK economy from manufacturing to service industries over the last two or three decades is well known: currently the split is roughly 70 per cent service, 30 per cent manufacturing.

Part of this shift includes has seen large amounts of electronics manufacturing move overseas to low labour cost economies. However, the UK has retained and strengthened its position as a global centre for design and innovation. This is underlined by a recent, positive report on venture capital funding which showed more venture funding going into the European technology sector in Q1 2008 than ever before. Nearly half the figure was funding to UK programs and businesses.

Purchasing professionals in the higher education sector need to source the latest components and technology. This lets students keep up to date and helps ensure Europe, and the UK, maintains its reputation.

From a students perspective, engineering has suffered an image problem over the years. A lack of understanding of the diversity of engineering is amongst several factors that have impacted the number of school leavers embarking on electronic engineering courses. In the five years to December 2007 there was a 45 per cent drop in students opting for electronics and electrical engineering courses. However, in spite of this trend, the quality of technology education remains high.

Many of the purchasing needs of the higher education sector are similar to those of commercial customers. However, there are some unique requirements that must be met.

Distributors are well placed to satisfy small volume requirements typical in the education sector. Huge product ranges give buyers a potential one-stop-shop, helping reduce their supplier base and simplify the purchasing function. Twenty four hour online ordering and free next-day delivery add to the value proposition.

Because higher education organisations are not commercial, profit making enterprises, any additional support on pricing is appreciated. Buyers can often get access to special pricing via the distribution channel as manufacturers recognise the potential long-term benefits of brand loyalty and supporting the engineers of the future. As an example, onecall is able to offer special pricing on products from several battery manufacturers. Furthermore, manufacturers often run special education programs in conjunction with the supply of their products.

One of the latest distribution innovations is eProcurement services. These are designed to provide buyers with complete cost control and total visibility of spend. They let buyers self-serve their material requirements through an online program customisable to their needs. In a higher education procurement environment with requests for components, tools and equipment likely to come to the buyer from multiple sources, the facility helps by setting individual user spend, creating workflows and configuring approval structures. eProcurement can provide an invaluable tool to reduce workload, improve efficiency and provide control.

Paid for eProcurement software solutions have been available for some time, but now some distribution companies are seeing the value of providing free-to-use online versions that integrate seamlessly with product ordering via their websites: Farnells i-Buy being an example. The combination of these tools with extensive product ranges and technical support add to the compelling single source proposition for the higher education and research council sector buyer.

Higher education is crucial to the UK maintaining its excellent reputation as a leading developer of new electronics technologies. An important part of this is ensuring fast, easy access to competitively, and often special priced, electronic components and related products. Keeping to a small supplier base can be important to education sector buyers to keep costs down. Distributors are well positioned to continue playing a key role, and an online presence can help them give other ‘value adds’ such as technical data and eProcurement solutions.