How Avnet accelerates its product design process

As a 2023 CIO100 winner, Avnet Inc., the Arizona-based electronic component distributor, has distinguished itself with groundbreaking projects that leverage established and emerging tech to up productivity and efficiency, and to generally do things differently. Avnet’s Design Hub is one example.

According to Max Chan, the company’s CIO, the supply chain and supply chain management has come into stark focus in recent years. In fact, more people have learned about what the supply chain does—or doesn’t do—in light of widespread disruptions caused by the pandemic. This scenario forced a company like Avnet to come up with a solution. 

Max Chan, CIO, Avnet Inc.

Avnet Inc.

Before the Design Hub, Avnet’s engineers had to design solutions for customers in an isolated environment. The typical design process entailed choosing a core component and then working with its team of engineers to decide what goes around it. This didn’t foster an efficient flow of communication. “We quickly realized there was an opportunity for a better, more seamless experience to allow the customer to get more involved in the design process, and give us the chance to offer something unique in the market,” says Chan. “With the Design Hub, Avnet enables engineers to design, get a bill of materials, check prices and availability, compile a quote, and make a purchase all in a single, frictionless workflow.”

Product design made easy

The Design Hub offers thousands of proven reference designs, technical calculators and tools. As such, customers are spoiled for choice when it comes to picking the parts they want to use in their product design. But the portal is more than just a directory of available components. Helping customers find the right components is a must. For Peter Robinson, VP of IT for the Americas and global applications, this is a significant differentiator. “The explosion of the number of components out there means that a lot of customers find it difficult to figure out what components work best together,” he says.

To address this, an interactive whiteboard or canvas was developed where customers can play around with different components and find the best fit for their unique requirements. From here, they can ask Avnet engineers for design help, or immediately place an order for the components on their board and then build a prototype. “By speeding up the design process, customers can easily try out 20 or 30 designs in the same time it would’ve taken to complete just one or two designs,” Robinson adds. “So we’re really accelerating the innovation cycle for our customers, which obviously allows them to create their own designs or use our reference designs.”

For Chan, it comes down to creating a single pane of glass that unifies data and presents customers with a complete view of the product. “In the past, an engineer would go out and talk to the customer and show them how to do something,” he says. “Now, customers are able to access the Design Hub any time. They can leverage the existing database of reference designs, or they can co-create with our engineers online without having to go back and forth too much.”

For Avnet, a major benefit of the Design Hub relates to component suppliers. Once a bill of materials is being finalized, the company can automatically notify the supplier and order the applicable parts. By making it possible for customers to move from the Design Hub with a list of components to one of the brand’s other shopping carts, Avnet made sure they were the distributor of choice. This also enables them to secure preferred pricing, which drives higher sales margins.

From the inside out

According to Robinson, the Design Hub started out as an internal tool. There had long been a discussion among IT leadership around how to extend these capabilities to Avnet’s customers. The idea, he says, was to create a bridge from design to engineering. But what worked effectively for the needs of Avnet’s engineers couldn’t easily be extended to the business’ customers. Understanding they had to create something simple and user-friendly—a self-service tool—they worked with an external partner who helped them bring everything together to create a seamless experience for their customers. Here, he admits that change management was incredibly important. “Making sure our internal engineers were comfortable with the fact that this tool that was just theirs now has a different value proposition was key,” he says. “Where our engineers used to put together entire reference designs for customers, now they’re helping and advising customers and moving into more of a consulting role because the customers can do a lot of the design work themselves.”

Peter Robinson, VP of IT for the Americas and global applications, Avnet Inc.

Avnet Inc.

For Robinson, it was critical for the tool to be versatile. It was built in an iframe that could easily be put on other sites and platforms across the Avnet business landscape. This interoperability and integration component was essential because they wanted to allow customers to jump from one Avnet site to another and move a list of components into a shopping cart somewhere else in the business. In total, it took about 12 months to transform the internal resource into the Design Hub their customers use today.

Since the hub was launched, positive customer feedback and adoption has grown exponentially, according to Chan. There have also been a number of collaboration wins. “From a productivity standpoint, making it possible for an engineer to work directly with a customer on a platform like this has driven throughput,” he says. Furthermore, these interactions help Avnet to be more targeted and give the business a better understanding of customer intent. Here, Robinson says that Avnet generates better revenue and greater profits from items where they’re involved in the design because they help customers pick the right components based on their needs. “Additionally, the Design Hub helps us with supply chain planning because we can see what parts are popular and what parts aren’t,” he says. “This really helps address an industry-wide problem of excess inventory. It also allows us to steer customers away from trying to design something using components that won’t be available 12 months from now.”

The experience building the Design Hub has taught Chan that it’s crucial not to look at it as a one-for-one replacement. “We had an internal engineering tool, and if we just put that in the cloud, we would’ve just created the same thing in a different place,” he says. “You have to think of it as a transformation project, as opposed to a lift and shift project.” He also stresses that initiatives like this can’t just be an IT effort. Robinson agrees. “With anything like this,” he says, “it has to be business-led.”

CIO, CIO 100, Data Center Design, Data Engineering, IT Leadership