Electronic-component distributors have steadily enhanced their online offerings since the early 1990s.
Most distributors' early Internet forays consisted of corporate Web sites with company and contact information. Later, component information sites arrived that provided engineers with online product catalogs and data sheet information. Online offerings then evolved to include parametric-search capabilities that let customers search by key design parameters, manufacturer and product type; order management services; and full suites of tools that make it easier for engineers to search for, select and buy components online.
Many distributors now offer comprehensive suites of services and information that support the entire supply chain, said Chris Henry, vice president and general manager for Arrow Electronics' Global Business Information (Melville, N.Y.). The tools may include search utilities that give component engineers the ability to cross-reference, do a risk analysis on their bill of materials or access end-of-life (EOL) or product change notices as well as information on excess or obsolete-part inventories, Henry said.
Providing such services requires investments in the millions for equipment, engineering staff, and software and information technology. Some distributors have started to charge for information to recoup some of their huge investments.
The level of Web-based services offered tends to vary according to the distributor's size and resources. But distributors of all sizes face the common challenge of aggregating the component data into an easy-to-use format for customers. One of the biggest challenges in adopting the Internet as a business tool is the availability of accurate, high-impact information that is consistent and logical, said Barbara Martensen, senior vice president of the group information office at Avnet Electronics Marketing (Phoenix).
Most companies today struggle with getting information that is consistent across applications, Martensen said. Information offered on the Internet must be accurate and presented in such a way that "customers and suppliers and even our internal employees will want to consume it," she said.
Tony Chien, vice president of e-commerce for Newark Electronics, agreed it's all about "good data and good back-end integration. That is where all the money is spent, and that is what gives the customer benefit," he said. "That's the hidden secret."
When Newark started its online program, the information was available but not in a customer-friendly format, Chien said. "All of these hidden codes for maximizing the efficiency of a computer were not customer-friendly. So we had to make massive investments to give our customers the ability to look into our supply chain and our back end to see all of the information about our products, including availability, lead times and order status. You have to get all that information off the back end and put it on the Web site. We've spent millions of dollars on enabling the back end, messaging systems and databases to store the information and allow customers to retrieve it very quickly according to their needs."
A few years ago, distributors realized that engineers were clearly the early adopters of the technology, so the distribution houses began refining some of their e-commerce services for engineers. Today, Arrow, Avnet, Newark, Pioneer-Standard and Sager are among those targeting the design community with Web-based tools, either free or fee-based, that speed the design cycle and bring product to market faster (see story at right). Some of the tools allow designers to perform parametric searches that return information on component specs, availability, lead times, pricing, parts status and cross-references, as well as links to technical data sheets, application notes, and EOL and product change notices.
One of best ways distributors have found to provide detailed component information is to post their print catalogs online. Customers get up-to-date data via the online catalog versions.
Design engineers have an insatiable appetite for data, said Newark's Chien. "Customers love that they can call up information about a product-including technical attributes, such as maximum operating temperature or type of termination-and do product comparisons side by side to decide on the spot which product is the right one for them to buy."
In the future, Chien said, Newark plans to improve the searching capability at its Web site to allow customers to search by product preferences. It also plans to add EOL and product change notices and to expand its capability to send shipment confirmation notices via e-mail to customers. (Today, Newark only sends e-mail confirmation notices for e-commerce orders, which total about 700 to 800 orders a day.)
Some distributors offer huge, searchable databases. Arrow's electronic components database, Ubiquidata, posts technical information for more than 16 million devices. The database drives Arrow's subscription-based services including Alert, Risk Manager, Collaborator and Parts Cleansing.
Late last year, Pioneer-Standard Electronics Inc. expanded its Passive Discovery Center on mypioneer.com to include more than 50,000 chip resistors. Customers can compare, cross-reference and order from a database of more than 2.5 million passives by functional criteria, manufacturer or part number. Component recommendations factor in industry usage, availability and pricing.
Sager Electronics also recently upgraded its Web site to include access to the distributor's SynerSpec design tool and added functionality for quicker access to such information as price, availability, lead times, new products and guides for product selection. The site offers access to Sager's easyClick line card, powered by SynerSpec technology, which lets users access available product data by product category or supplier.
"Improved response time is a critical need for our customers. With the addition of SynerSpec and easyClick to our Sager.com offering, we are providing our customers with the tools needed to bring their products to market faster, easier and better," said Frank Flynn, president of Sager Electronics.
Late last year, Sager launched a customer portal, Sager Connect, that lets users access real-time information on their orders. Customers can review their order status, track shipped orders and monitor open orders. Sager has also provided its salespeople with their own Web-based portal, which lets them pull their own reports and real-time data directly, instead of making requests through local management for the data.
Some of the largest distributors have begun posting proprietary component data on the Web in conjunction with their order management tools, enhancing tool functionality by adopting user-friendly formats.
Arrow's Global Information Business, for example, has launched such fee-based services as Risk Manager, Alert, Collaborator and Part Cleansing and has brought them together under a browser-based collaborative tool dubbed Connectivity Dashboard. The platform lets users navigate across all services and condense the data onto a single view screen.
Avnet's Promiere provides fee-based design and supply chain services via alliances with i2, SpinCircuit, Cadence, PMG and America II. And Pioneer-Standard and subsidiary Aprisa Inc. last month rolled out a software tool set that is expected to streamline new-product introductions and reduce product development costs (see June 3, page 91). The StraightLine tool set, available through Aprisa, includes a component database with detailed information on more than 4 million active and passive part numbers from more than 900 component makers. The software modules include Discover Center, for hardware engineers in the early stages of design; Component Center, for sourcing components; BOM Center, for managing bills of materials; and Quote Center, for automated quoting.
With the next generation of Web-based tools, Arrow's Henry said, engineers will create parts lists for new designs and share the information with component engineers and procurement people. That will improve the ability to find alternate sources and position inventories, he said.
Arrow Electronics Inc.
a division of Global Premier Farnell plc
Pioneer-Standard Electronics Inc.
Industrial Electronics Division