Age of independence

Operations manager at Princeps Electronics, Ian Walker, believes the independent distributor is about to come into its own. Independent distributors have always offered a lifeline to electronics manufacturers when traditional suppliers put components onto extended lead times or allocation, but this route has been beset by concerns over component provenance. A good independent distributor can overcome these issues to provide a superior component source – not only during hard times, but into the recovery.

Twelve months ago, component sourcing was not an issue. OEM and CEM manufacturers were negotiating 12 month commitments with their suppliers, confident that they would consume the stock as scheduled and franchised distributors were providing generous stockholding capacity. In this environment independent distributors were valued mainly as sources for obsolete components.

Recently, however, recession-hit manufacturers have reduced their commitments, typically to around three months. In turn, franchised suppliers have reduced buffer stocks and component manufacturers have cut stockholding and reduced production capacity. Some parts are now only manufactured to order, with long lead times and allocation increasingly prevalent.

In this environment, buyers have little choice but to re-evaluate the independent route to keep production running. The challenge is to establish confidence that components will actually be as their labels claim – not compromised by dubious sourcing or poor in-house handling.

Independent distributor, Princeps, has tackled this issue by matching its experience in component sourcing with investment in quality management.

The first step is thorough vendor management, with an extensive vetting process using its electronic resellers association international (ERAI) membership. This provides updated information on faulty, high risk or counterfeit parts as well as risk assessing suppliers.

Incoming components are subjected to an audited ISO9001:2008 procedure, which includes inspection, as per IDEA-STD-1010A. Developed by the independent distributors of electronics association (IDEA), the standard covers inspection, product handling, packaging, packing and storage. It gives advice on inspecting for contamination, oxidation, damage, poor handling, prior use, rework, counterfeiting and remarking is given.

Component provenance is checked by testing as well as visual inspection, using a curve tracer to characterise the component and compare it with a known reference part or the manufacturers data sheet. Both methods yield a go/no go result. The curve tracer can spot ESD failures.

Custom test solutions involving x-ray inspection, destructive physical analysis, solderability testing, or even XRF elemental analysis are also an option. These procedures add cost to the supply chain, but early discussion ensures a mutual understanding of the test solution. Its goals and status can then be maintained by ongoing exchange of test data.

So, what rewards can buyers expect in return for the effort of finding the right independent distributor?

The answer encompasses both time and money. Because independent distributors trade worldwide, they can search extensively to find component manufacturers and distributors who are currently under pressure to offload stock. Under these circumstances, stock can be released for shipment quickly and favourable terms can be negotiated.

Although many buyers are currently establishing relationships with independent distributors because they have to, the effort spent now on finding independent suppliers of demonstrable quality will offer long term rewards. Not only can independent distributors provide a fast and flexible response, they can also form part of a quality long term manufacturing strategy.