Design engineers are facing new challenges rising from the outsourcing model employed by an increasing number of OEMs. And that's on top of increased pressures to get their designs to market faster. Internet and e-commerce tools that promise to help improve efficiency are appearing as pop-ups on computer screens at an alarming rate. Tools that automatically process some of the mountain of information and communications that are a part of the typical design cycle are finally becoming a reality. Imagine being able to eliminate even a third of all the e-mails, faxes, phone calls and data sheets you receive and send in a week. Think of how much time that would save.
However, the problem is that all aspects of getting today's electronic products into consumers' hands are interrelated and enmeshed. During the product design stage, large amounts of data must be communicated both internally and with other supply chain partners about the components and materials from which the product will be made.
No longer can a designer choose parts without considering the supply-chain implications. That means that as soon as decisions are made they must be communicated up and down the chain. Statements of work, assembly drawings, schematics and test instructions must all be transmitted to the appropriate partner. And since designs do change, the changes and corrections must also be communicated-this is time-consuming. Then, once the product goes into production changes often occur due to improvements in processes, suggestions from suppliers or changes in market conditions. These all must also be disseminated with accuracy and follow-through to the last link.
The problem for those trying to help designers solve these problems with Internet and e-commerce solutions is that each designer has his or her own process; no one solution will fit into the work styles and habits of all design engineers. A variety of approaches is required. Yet the potential for breathtaking improvements in productivity and efficiency is very real. It is clear that no one company can solve the problem. There is no one magic product that will solve everything; the effort takes collaboration. The goal is to acquire the ability and tools to allow information to travel seamlessly across company borders through whatever portal the engineer is most comfortable using. It is this requirement for collaboration that has in the past been the barrier to implementing the promises of the technology.
Some companies have seen the light and are forming creative and sometimes surprising alliances and partnerships. Even companies that compete have acknowledged that the more choices a customer has, the more likely they will use the Internet to buy. The Internet is a big and sometimes inefficient place. The supply side of our industry must cooperate with technology providers to offer customers the right solution.
The first step in true trans-industry collaboration is agreement on standards for the interface. For example, RosettaNet is an electronic industry consortium formed to establish an electronic commerce framework for supply-chain management. Players include coalition partners-industry associations from around the world; supply-chain partners that contribute directly to the interface development process by providing the subject matter expertise and human resources for various project teams; and solution partners that provide the technology and services necessary to aid companies in implementing interfaces.
While standards have existed for some time, such as Electronic Data Interchange (EDI), administrative and technological barriers still prevent seamless integration on the Internet. A number of misalignments can occur in the supply chain. For example, forecast misalignments occur between electronic OEMs and their suppliers that must guess at inventory levels throughout the supply chain; coordination misalignments occur as suppliers disseminate product descriptions using a range of diverse terminology and classification schemes. Members of the IT supply chain have to agree, for example, on how a part number is defined or how real-time inventory queries can be made through a standard system interface.
"E-concert" is the name given to the cross-enterprise effort to orchestrate the implementation of RosettaNet specifications between information technology supply-chain partners. E-concert's intent was to develop processes that will ensure that all contributing members develop a uniform "infostructure" to capitalize on their global enterprise resource planning (ERP) infrastructure.
The mission of Viacore (Orange, Calif.), one of the solution partners of RosettaNet, is to build a reliable and transparent e-business hub to enable the rapid deployment and cost-effective management of RosettaNet Partner Interface Processes between trading partners in the IT supply chain. In other words, Viacore will take the standards coming out of the RosettaNet process and create an independent and seamless hub allowing for communication among business entities.
Companies that have become the de facto physical hubs for the supply chain-the likes of Avnet, Arrow Electronics, FDX, Ingram Micro, Softbank and Tech Data-have equity interests in Viacore.
Another collaborative initiative to watch is ChipCenter, a unique partnership among leading publishers, software developers and franchised product distributors-namely Avnet, Arrow Electronics, Aspect Development and CMP Media, the company that publishes EE Times. The company intends to develop the first Web service to comprehensively address the information and product-acquisition needs of both electronic systems designers and purchasing managers. Designers will have data and purchase access to an inventory of more than a million electronic components and more than $2 billion in inventory from more than 300 component suppliers. It will include full specifications and support information and a broad range of timely articles, seminars, news and information focused on designers' needs.
Users will be able to "learn, find and buy" from one site, and have access to overnight delivery for testing and prototype activities. The ultimate benefit from these services will be quicker identification and qualification of components for electronic systems and reduced overhead costs of purchasing them, shorter "time-to-sale" for component vendors and shortened time-to-market for EOEMs. Essentially, ChipCenter is being designed to compress the product selection and product sales process. During a transaction, the system will be able to check for availability and pricing from all participating distributors based either on a part number search or a part description search.
Another unique feature of this collaboration is that it supplements the supercatalog information with organized knowledge from branded content sources, from the Web and from other product users. This knowledge source is what makes it useful-it will become a user community in addition to a source for product information.
QuestLink operates the EE Design Center (questlink.com), which provides up-to-date technical information, downloadable device drivers and software, and pricing and availability of parts from its industry distributor fulfillment partners. The site takes an order from a buyer and places it with a distributor, which then drop-ships the parts directly to the buyer. The site provides its 162,000 registered users with company profiles on more than 400 companies and 20,000 application notes, as well as access to over $1 billion in inventory.
The site allows design engineers to locate and compare product specifications and make purchasing decisions for upcoming or in-progress design projects. Designed by engineers for engineers, questlink.com offers technical reference information, design tools and software and product samples in a fully searchable, downloadable, easy-to-use form, free of charge, 24 x 7.
The goal of such initiatives is to invest in the alliances that will allow companies such as Avnet to act as a supply-chain integrator for customers. Through this overall strategy we are building a full-service, 24 x 7, global, "clicks and mortar" offering. The result will be centralized information stored on a database accessible via the Web to enable each supply-chain partner to obtain the information needed anywhere in the world. This will facilitate product sourcing, purchasing, design, manufacturing and delivery to the global market.
The battle for integration is for what one analyst called the "soft connective tissue" between the links in the supply chain. These collaborative initiatives can help reach a goal of accurate, appropriate information, in real-time.