Distributor design assistance can reduce cost for OEMs

James Carbone, contributing editor

Most distributors provide some level of design help to OEM customers, ranging from maintaining data-rich websites filled with data sheets and reference designs to offering customers full-blown design services By James Carbone.

Electronics purchasers at many OEMs often do business with a select few preferred distributors that carry the product lines the buyer needs and provide supply-chain and value-added services that can reduce cost and risk.

However, some buyers are also factoring in the design expertise and design services a distributor offers in determining which distributors will be preferred. Many OEMs are operating leaner and have smaller engineering staffs and lack the in-house expertise concerning certain technologies. They may need help in determining the most technically fit part for a new design or require assistance in designing a board for a new product.

In many cases, distributors can provide such assistance. Most distributors have robust websites chock full of data sheets and other technical information about components and technologies. Others have field application engineers (FAEs) or component engineers, who can suggest solutions to technical issues on the phone or on-site at the customer’s facility. Some distributors also offer technical training for customers on certain technologies and product families. A few offer a full-fledged design service and can do turnkey design for an OEM customer.

Many distributors say they are seeing more demand for design expertise from customers. Murdoch Fitzgerald, vice president of semiconductor marketing at Arrow Electronics, said Arrow is “seeing more opportunities today to help customers with a truly comprehensive design and go-to- market solution.” He added customers expect more than they did 10 years ago concerning design support.

In the past, “we may have helped to integrate a handful of cutting-edge hardware components into a new product design.” However, today customers are involving Arrow very early in the design stage and the distributor’s role in design and other aspects of some customers’ businesses has expanded.

“We help identify design efficiencies up front and handle all of the hardware and software design, wireless connectivity, cloud integration and even the contract manufacturing and go-to-market logistics” said Fitzgerald.

He said OEM customers are also looking for more “localized engineering and training support. Customers don’t want to talk to someone half way around the world. They want a hands-on experience with someone experienced and familiar with the design,” said Fitzgerald.

FAE co-location
FAEs are part of that support. “We often co-locate an experienced Arrow FAE on-site to help a customer soup-to-nuts with the design and production process,” said Fitzgerald. The FAEs provide customers with assistance in solid-state lighting, power, passives, electromechanical devices and connectors, industrial IoT and other key areas, he said. Arrow has FAEs in 95 countries, according to Fitzgerald.

“Future’s Advanced Engineering Group serves as an extension to our customers’ engineering team, and can provide a full engineering solution for any of their designs,” said Todd Baker, corporate vice president, engineering for Future Electronics

In addition to FAEs, Arrow offers turnkey board-design services, and extensive board-level support in smaller packaging and low-power requirements. “We also employ dedicated FPGA and ASIC experts who can help with a full spectrum of services from writing RTL to full test and layout capabilities to complex system on chips,” said Fitzgerald.

He added Arrow supports customers with online reference designs and data sheets so engineers can get answers to technical questions quickly.

Todd Baker, corporate vice president, engineering for Future Electronics, said customers need different levels of technical support. Future offers a “multitiered design services support structure,” he said. For instance, Future’s Advanced Engineering Group serves as an “extension to our customers’ engineering team, and can provide a full engineering solution for any of their designs,” said Baker. Future has system design centers around the world that offer full system design, taking ideas from inception to full production, he said.

Future also has specialist engineering teams that provide expertise on networking, RF design, displays, lighting, FPGAs, or analog design.

Future, like other major distributors, offer customers technical training sessions concerning certain technologies and products to help engineers learn and develop early designs.

“Customers get hands on experience with the products we represent, and build a foundational knowledge of how those products can be designed in their own applications,” said Baker. Future rotates the training sessions through “key markets to bring our customers quickly up to speed on the latest processor, microcontroller, FPGA, or wireless solutions,” he said.

He said startup customers and well-established OEMs look for such training as well as design assistance and services. Many of them need help with wireless design and cloud connectivity.

Avnet also offers training on certain technologies and provides FAE support for customers, but also offers fee-based design services.

“Our traditional field application engineer (FAE) model, allows us to provide design assistance on both our suppliers’ products, as well as general system architecture and overall solution development,” said Jim Beneke, vice president, global technical marketing for Avnet. FAE assistance is typically included as part of Avnet’s overall customer service.

He said Avnet’s FAEs provide basic product training for customers, keeping them up to date on technologies and products. “In addition, we provide tools and platform training for MCU, MPU, FPGA, and SoC development, said Beneke. “We will also offer workshops based on certain technologies such as power supply design, wireless connectivity and specific application such as IoT, embedded vision and software defined radio among others,” he said.

Fee for service
Avnet provides other design services for a fee. “We do this through our design services groups in both the Americas and Asia, and can offer a range of services including board design, FPGA design, PCB layout, PCB simulation, embedded software development, certification assistance and turnkey production,” said Beneke.

“Arrow is seeing more opportunities today to help customers with a truly comprehensive design and go-to-market solution,” said Murdoch Fitzgerald, vice president of semiconductor marketing at Arrow Electronics

Beneke said startups and established OEMS are looking for design support. Many startup companies come to Avnet for “full turnkey approach to design. Some customers approach us looking for the customization of existing boards, like Raspberry Pi, where they need minor changes followed by production support,” he said.

Baker said customers of all kinds need design assistance and services because of the “growing complexity of what’s being designed.” Boards and systems have more functions and capabilities than in the past and “are being pushed in terms of performance and power efficiency,” he said.

Designs involving multi-GHz serial interfaces, multi-GHz sample speeds, multi-core CPUs, various wireless connectivity standards, Linux (open source software), complex sensors are “stretching the knowledge base of OEM design teams. “This requires a much broader range of skills that many customers either don’t have, or don’t have enough of,” said Baker. As a result, they need help from outside parties, including distributors.

Passives, electromechanical and connector specialist TTI does not offer design services, but often plays a role in component selection for many customers.

“Many customers used to have a function in-house called component engineering,” said Michael Knight, senior vice president, Americas for TTI. One role of the component engineer would be to identify a problem part on a bill of material (BOM) and find an alternative from a different manufacturer.

“Today distribution plays the role of a component engineer,” said Knight.  “At TTI, we have component engineers on staff who our sales team calls in to help their customers.”

Component engineers are degreed, experienced engineers, but differ from FAEs in that they do not travel. “Instead, they use on-line tools coupled with the phone,” said Knight.  “It is very cost and time effective and gives them hands-on access to reference material to quickly get the sales team and their customers the information that they need,” he said.

“Our traditional field application engineer (FAE) model, allows us to provide design assistance on both our suppliers’ products, as well as general system architecture and overall solution development,” said Jim Beneke, vice president, global technical marketing for Avnet

Knight added that TTI will soon launch a BOM analysis tool that Mouser has developed and will also use to assist their customers with component evaluation.

“The tool will analyze an uploaded BOM and AVL to find hot spots and offer alternative solutions,” said Knight.” A hot spot could be a manufacturer’s part number that has gone, or is about to go, obsolete, or a part with a particularly long lead time because of a current supply issue,” he said.

“This tool will be just as useful to the design engineer who has to do some preliminary evaluation of the price and availability of the components he or she is selecting for the project they are working on,” he said.

What’s your question?
Randall Restle, vice president of applications engineering for Digi-Key, said the distributor does not offer design services, but has “scores of technical people that are available to answer questions. Such questions range from the difference in beryllium copper versus gold on a contact to which new microprocessor is a good fit for a particular design,” he said.

He said most of the questions that Digi-Key receives are not about semiconductors, but about connectors. Power suppliers are the second most asked about product followed by semiconductors.

He said there could be more questions about connectors because data sheets on connectors are often just a technical drawing and don’t have as much detailed information as semiconductors may have.