Electronic Products & Technology

How to add years of expertise to your design team

By Andrew Dawes, M.A.Sc., P.Eng, field applications engineer, Arrow Electronics Canada Ltd.   

Supply Chain

Let’s face it. In these fast-paced times and with new technology emerging at a pace faster than anyone can keep up with, how do you stay on top of product development while still having time to research new technologies that could allow your business to grow in new directions and enter new markets?

When choosing to work with a distributor, there may be several factors that enter into the partner selection criteria such as price, supply chain management, payment terms among others. But, what about the intangible items, such as prompt service and technical expertise? How can we place a value on services such as these? What price would you pay to shave weeks off your development schedule by starting down the right path, the first time?

In the case of technical expertise, I can offer a potential solution. One approach might be to assign an opportunity cost to the engineering staff. It can be argued that any engineering time taken away from the direct development of your products is lost time; therefore, any tasks that you can outsource will be an advantage – particularly if offered free. Your distributor will effectively be working in parallel with your team on offloaded tasks. Your team stays focused, continuing to forge ahead on the tasks at hand. Now there’s some time to help the production team with the issues they might be having and address other important responsibilities. To clarify this point, an example is useful.

Let’s make it wireless

XYZ Corp has been in business building widgets for five years. Recent growth in overseas business has allowed the company to be very successful. Customers are asking for wireless connectivity to be added to their products.


The marketing guys have done some initial research into M2Mi and have determined that this is a feature that must be added. Only there’s a problem, no one at the company has any experience with wireless technology. Where do they start? How do they know which wireless technology to use? What are the features and benefits of using a particular technology and which technology is suitable?

Does this scenario sound familiar? These days, with access to the Internet the engineer assigned to the project would open up his or her favourite search engine and start browsing. But how long does this process take and how far should you pursue it before reaching a decision?

Here’s where the resourceful manager or creative engineer can benefit from a great relationship with a distributor. Reaching out to your distributors’ technical team early on in the design phase can help you get to the necessary background information you need. A meeting with any member of the FAE team can quickly connect you to a wealth of information and resources.

In this case, your distributor might offer to start a comparison table listing competing wireless technologies ranging across ZigBee, Bluetooth, WiFi and Sub-Giga-Hertz that includes information about effective ranges, security options and data rates.

“You don’t know what you don’t know”

A colleague of mine often uses the term, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” It raises an interesting paradox; how do you know when you’ve amassed enough information to make an informed decision?

The painful truth is that you won’t until you’ve already made a mistake. Going back to our example, how would you select the right technology for the application? One way is to leverage the relationship that you have with your distributor and call on the services of the distributor’s FAEs. It is the FAE’s role to understand and apply the technology and provide valuable information to customers.

Effectively, as a customer you should be reaching out to the technical team of your distributor to gain access to the knowledge they have acquired through product training, market knowledge and years of experience. The typical FAE may see hundreds of designs in a single year compared to an engineer who might be involved with just one or two projects in that same timeframe.

But they can’t possibly know everything

Chances are, while you might have a brand new idea that has never been heard before, it’s likely that there are at least some aspects of the design that are common with other projects. This is where leveraging expertise and existing knowledge can drastically shorten development times and increase the likelihood of a successfully deployed project, within budget and on schedule.

Another factor to keep in mind is that FAEs are friendly – you should find the distributor FAEs easy to speak with, even in layman’s terms. One of the most often overlooked roles of the FAE is speaking to non-technical staff and serving as a gateway between the technical and non-technical worlds; a translator of sorts. Meeting with company managers or marketing departments are all in the daily roles of the FAE.

The factory guys tell me everything that I need to know

If yours is one of the lucky companies to still have direct support from the factory, kudos to you – but you have to approach it similar to reading a datasheet; the factory will highlight all the good features and downplay the shortcomings.

It also will tell you everything great about just its own products. That is certainly fine if you have already committed to a particular silicon vendor, but what if you want to make comparisons between vendor technologies? A distribution partner, and in particular one that has a vast array of product lines can provide valuable feedback in terms of a comparison between features and benefits amongst similar lines.

Referring back to our example with XYZ Corp, it might be a great idea to compare not just wireless technologies, but also wireless module vendors and the features that they provide. Perhaps one particular vendor offers features that will help make development easier, reduce development costs, or help differentiate your product.

What about the make-versus-buy argument? At what volume does it make sense to design your own module? Wait, what about licensing and certification costs? Did anyone even consider those things? Without reaching out to your distribution partner, these questions might never be considered, only to be discovered too late, when problems have already occurred.

I need to keep this expertise in-house

Reaching out to a distributor does not mean that you lose control of your project or won’t have the expertise in house to support your product. On the contrary, the information is provided to you or your engineering team in order to make an informed choice. You can always request additional information or continue on with further research internally. Consider it a way to shorten the learning curve required to implement new technologies.

The centralized approach of an engineering solutions center allows knowledge resources to be pooled and drawn upon when necessary. Within Arrow’s engineering support outputs includes Application Solution Packets (ASPs). The APSs can consist of many key elements, some of which include:

• Block diagrams

• Supplier options (vendor A vs. B vs. C, or FPGA vs. MCU vs. DSP)

• Technology comparisons

• Operating systems

• Reference designs

• Training

• Test and certification requirements

What else can they offer?

Going back to our XYZ Corp example, after determining the appropriate wireless technology to use, what about production? Will your current CMiv be able to handle the components? What about the pcb? Can your current pcb vendor support wireless technologies? Third-party support requirements are essential points to consider in any decision making process.

• Thi
rd-Party Design Support (ACESv, CLSvi, supplier, etc)

– Code conversion

– Sample code

– Proof of concept, prototypes, turnkey, etc.

What now?

In all the cases the above services and benefits can be obtained free, simply by reaching out to your distributor.


Typically, the earlier in the design cycle that you can engage the services of your distributor’s technical team, the more likely you are to make intelligent, informed decisions with confidence. Today, information can be accessed very readily, but, knowledge is what is necessary to get ahead in today’s market place. Leveraging the technical knowledgebase of your distributor to add years of expertise to your team just makes good business sense.


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