Power Electronics

The Distributors’ Growing Role in Power Design

Every December, the focus of this magazine shifts away from the usual discussions of power supply, design techniques and component technologies to listings of vendors, products and services. One of the nice things about a buyers guide is the diversity of resources it presents.

Within a given product category, you find vendors of many different stripes. You encounter big and small companies, those with broad product lines and those with niche products. Those with advanced technology and those with commodities. Suppliers boasting lowest cost and others that promise quality, reliability or service. This diversity among suppliers reflects a similarly diverse universe of customers with wide-ranging requirements. And because even the broadest component suppliers cannot be all things to all customers, they regularly turn to distributors for help.

Though the general need for distributors has long been taken for granted, the role of distributors — like that of the suppliers they represent — is continually evolving. Moreover, many of the changes that are transpiring now among distributors are particularly relevant to power electronics engineers. These changes could affect the way you do your job — or even where.

In some ways, the changes at the distributor level mirror those of the component suppliers, particularly the IC vendors who make controllers. Distributors are providing more design support for these components through power-savvy field application engineers (FAEs), presenting free power-supply design seminars to customers and even getting involved in power-supply manufacturing.

An example is Avnet, which has trained many of its FAEs in power-supply design so that they can both support the customers’ power-supply designs and provide them with power electronics training. They also have partnered with a power-supply vendor, Lambda, as a value-added reseller. In that role, Avnet customizes Lambda’s power modules. Similarly, Arrow Electronics has a group of power specialists that helps customers develop module-based designs and does power-supply modifications.

On the surface, it might seem that distributors like Avnet and Arrow are just mirroring the services of power IC vendors and power-supply merchants. To some extent, that’s true, because the distributor is trying to help the companies that are beyond the reach of those manufacturers. As in all areas of electronics, manufacturers of power components (and some supply merchants) tend to devote most of their attention to their large, tier-one customers. However, smaller customers need similar levels of support, and distributors try to fill this void.

Distributors are also in a unique position to support power-supply design because they are generally not tied to a single vendor’s offerings. So, whether they’re presenting design seminars or giving design support, they may be able to take a more objective approach than a particular vendor. Distributors such as Digi-Key also note their ability to provide complete power solutions (ICs, passives, connectors, etc.) and to save the engineer time by shipping a complete bill-of-materials overnight.

A good distributor can also support power experts by providing a second channel to the component manufacturers, giving customers earlier access to engineering samples and a sense of what’s coming on the supplier’s road map.

As you might expect, distributors are also part of an evolving employment scene. After the downturn in 2001, many IC companies snapped up power-supply specialists who were let go by downsizing OEMs. These engineers helped grow the ranks of the IC makers’ FAEs as those vendors tried to play a greater roll in power-supply design. Now distributors are competing for the same types of engineers as they look to expand the role of their FAEs in power design.

Although distributors and IC manufacturers may be looking for similar skills when they recruit new FAEs, the engineers who sign on with the distributors are likely to acquire different work experiences. A distributor’s very wide customer base, its relationship with numerous suppliers and its emphasis on service may mean a more varied set of assignments than a power-supply designer could obtain elsewhere, as well as a unique opportunity to stay in tune with the industry’s changing power needs.

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