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Outlook 2015: The changing role of electronics distribution

Never before have electronic technologies been as accessible or affordable to such a mass audience.

Technology and electronics know-how has never been as accessible or affordable for all, whether that means engineers or electronics enthusiasts or students at university or school.

The internet – the printing press of the modern age – and ever-increasing bandwidth has of course enabled much of this accessibility. Access to know-how and information is much easier: with increasingly rich engineering content becoming available online, engineers and students learn more from videos on the web than they learn from datasheets.

And making it even easier is the pervasion of increasingly powerful and affordable mobile devices, using them for the sort of tasks for which we previously relied on our PCs. Social media plays into this as well, pushing out selected information of interest to these mobile devices. Developers too are becoming more and more involved in online design communities and forums to seek advice or to collaborate with others.

On top of this there is now access to increasingly affordable electronics technology, including platforms such as Raspberry Pi and Arduino and numerous modules available that deliver wireless connectivity based on cellular or Bluetooth or Wi-Fi or GPS technologies. These platforms and modules are enabling developers of all ages and levels of experience to experiment with projects and systems that are part of the Internet of Things.

In terms of software programming, initiatives are enabling the younger generation to learn to code, which has been a fundamental element for Raspberry Pi, demonstrating to young coders and developers just how easy it can be. Other initiatives are in evidence, including the recent 'Festival of Code', held this summer at Plymouth University, an annual event that brings together programmers and developers who are younger than 18.

Rise of the Geek
These trends have made a significant contribution to a sea change in the industry, which means the role of a global distributor is morphing into something slightly new. RS is no longer merely a vendor of basic electronic components; instead, it is increasingly a resource for tools, know-how and complete system technologies. And the profile of target customers is also changing. Whilst RS has been and continues to be a business-to-business (B2B) distributor, it is not yet truly a business-to-consumer (B2C) operation. Rather, it is operating increasingly in an environment that could be described as business-to-geek, or B2G perhaps!

The term is not used in any pejorative sense – I come to praise and not bury! No matter how we label them, geeks or technology enthusiasts are becoming increasingly important to our industry and are coming to represent the democratisation of innovation.

Overall, powerful resources and tools are now becoming available to individuals or small companies and collectives that were once only in the domain of the medium or large companies involved in design and manufacturing. This democratisation of electronics design via increased accessibility is having a knock-on effect throughout the industry –moreover, it is transforming the design process to a more agile approach.

Design Enablers
Three key trends are transforming the approach to innovation and product design. The first is the open source movement and the increasing availability of both open-source hardware and software. Certainly, the free and open source software movement is well established – the leading software vendors are embracing it – whilst the open-source hardware movement is still in its relative infancy. But it is growing; and fast. Hardware-proven reference designs and software protocol stacks from semiconductor vendors and other manufacturers are enabling engineers to quickly try out concepts rather than starting from nothing. In addition, platforms such as Raspberry Pi and Arduino are allowing the rapid creation of products based on modular building blocks. Arduino is, perhaps, the greatest success to date in the open-source hardware movement and it has succeeded through the establishment of a vibrant ecosystem with all the hardware design files available, so developers can study the design and extend it for their own purposes.

The second element is the growing availability of free design software. Obviously, it would be unusual to not mention the role of RS in this field and to cite DesignSpark PCB and DesignSpark Mechanical as key examples of free software design tools. DesignSpark PCB has removed the bottleneck of having to use specialist PCB layout engineers and now allows all engineers to rapidly design new concepts. DesignSpark Mechanical, which is based on direct modelling techniques, has enabled many more people to use a powerful 3D design tool and quickly create mechanical concepts and designs.

The third enabling element is increasingly easy access to rapid prototyping. One valuable resource is a range of PCB board manufacturers that can deliver prototype boards in a matter of days and at relatively low cost. Another resource is 3D printers, which are having a dramatic impact on the ability to rapidly produce prototypes and to realise mechanical design concepts. These 3D prototyping machines are becoming more and more affordable with plastic material based printers now available at prices similar to higher end laser printers.

Agile Approach
These three elements are enabling a more agile 'rapid concept and prototyping' approach to design that can significantly lighten up front requirements. The end goal can be considerably looser, with must-have functionality identified at a much higher level, allowing entire engineering departments to be involved in brainstorming. Multiple concepts can be created digitally and developed in parallel with the strongest concepts progressed and the weakest quickly abandoned in an evolutionary and iterative process. Physical prototypes can be produced, quickly followed by customer and market testing, with a small number of prototypes taken on through the full design process.

There are many advantages to this approach, including the ability to react rapidly to market demands and reducing time-to-market; encouraging innovation with the empowerment of engineers across entire departments; and the building up of a base of experience, even if a potential concept is not actually realised.

Democratisation
Never before have electronic technologies been as accessible or affordable to such a mass audience. A number of factors continue to influence the future direction of the industry, including increasing availability of know-how, affordable system technology platforms, the success of open source, more design resources from silicon and technology suppliers as well as from major distributors such as RS, the availability of free PCB- and 3D-design tools, and rapid prototyping capabilities including the use of 3D printers. All these elements are all combining to democratise the design process and make it accessible to many more engineers and developers and also enable a different approach to open up a significant opportunity for increased innovation, as well as realising concept-to-creation in a substantially faster time.

As a major global player that is committed to enabling more and more innovation in companies of all sizes, RS has recognised this groundswell of democratisation and is reorienting itself to meet new markets by putting the right products, tools and design resources in place.

There should be no doubt: distribution has an increasingly important role to play in the future in this fast-evolving design paradigm.

RS Components
RS Components and Allied Electronics are the trading brands of Electrocomponents plc, the world's leading high service distributor of electronics and maintenance products.

RS distributes more than 500,000 electronics and maintenance products from around 2500 leading suppliers. Our product range extends from semiconductors and optoelectronics to power tools and protective clothing. Our product and service portfolio supports the entire product lifecycle from R&D through pre-production to maintenance and repair.

From our 17 warehouses, we ship 46,000 parcels on the same day the orders are received. Serving 1.6 million customers across the world, we have our own operations in 32 countries and distributors in a further 37 markets.

Glenn Jarrett is global head of marketing for RS Components.

Author
Glenn Jarrett

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