Events aid innovation….

By Adam Fletcher, Chairman of the Electronic Components Supply Network (ecsn)

Most organisations today are finding themselves resource constrained to one degree or another, and the UK electronics sector is no exception. Engineers and technicians are frequently put under pressure to achieve more with less and are expected to efficiently undertake an ever-widening variety of tasks, be it a new from-the-ground-up design, updating an existing product, firefighting a production issue or resolving a silly problem with their department’s computer network… In this article Adam Fletcher, Chairman of the Electronic Components Supply Networks (ecsn) tips his metaphorical cap to the UK’s engineering teams and explains why letting ‘techies’ out of the office or lab occasionally might well assist in the development process…

New product ideas and incremental innovations that resolve a known problem don’t just happen. They are almost always a mix of knowledge and experience, plus a touch of perspiration and good fortune. But ideas must evolve and be thought through with knowledge applied by a design and engineering team if they’re to have a realistic chance of successfully developing into a product.

The internet has provided design engineers with the means to quickly access vast amounts of information about their industry, the market and competing products, together with a plethora of other less productive and time-sapping activities. At the electronic components level manufacturers and their authorised distributors have invested heavily in streamlining the way engineers are able to access information about a myriad of available products and making ordering samples or small quantities for next-day delivery a quick and easy process. Companies have made enormous investments in wonderful parametric search pages on their websites but currently these ‘engines’ are only able to provide results based on specific information keyed-in by the user. Engineers must know the right questions (search criteria) to input in order to have any hope of getting the information they need. It’s not difficult to find every available switch with a ‘red toggle’ but it’s much harder to accurately source comparative electrical and reliability performance, size details and prices, even if it has been included somewhere in the website (which is not always the case). It’s costly both in terms of time and effort if engineers are forced to source missing, vitally important information elsewhere.

Wider interaction?
Research suggests that the time pressures exerted on design engineers employed by UK companies is no greater than in other economies but their availability to engage outside of their office or laboratory is much more severely constrained. Management practice is also a factor, particularly in small medium sized enterprises (SMEs) where the physical presence and availability of a particular staff member is rated as highly desirable. In contrast, organisations in for instance, Germany and California make much greater investment in enabling technical staff at all levels to visit with their customers and suppliers and in facilitating their attendance at trade exhibitions and seminars. Apparently they recognise that design engineers and technicians need to see, touch and talk, all activities that form a fundamental part of human nature… and also that exposure to other organisations and environments enables these staff members to gain a better understanding of the real-world needs of their customers, about forthcoming products and technologies, and importantly, generally increasing their ‘wider vision and knowledge’.

Trade exhibitions & seminars – enjoyable but NOT a jolly
Whilst the web is undoubtedly a great source of information for design engineers, other nations recognise the importance of handling a product, examining it, and possibly directly questioning those ‘in the know’ at an informative presentation or seminar. No surprise then that Electronica Trade Fair held in Munich, Germany last November welcomed 2,900 exhibitors and over 72,000 trade visitors in four days, of which >40% described themselves as design engineers. But the UK can also boast of excellent electronics trade exhibitions and associated seminars. For instance, the next few months will see WNIE LIVE in Stoneleigh, 18 – 19 Sep. 2019; the Northern Manufacturing & Electronics Show in Manchester, 2 – 3 Oct. 2019; and the Electronics Design Show in Coventry, 16 – 17 Oct. 2019. Looking a little further forward the Southern Manufacturing & Electronics Show will again be held in Farnborough, 11 – 13 Feb. 2020

UK companies should be prepared to send their engineers to at least one of these events. Exhibitors will benefit from their support while controlled exposure to other organisations and environments will enable key personnel to gain a better understanding of the real-world needs of their customers, and the availability of new products and technologies. Generally increasing their ‘wider vision and knowledge’ can only assist engineers in solving a current or future problem and equally valuably, help them to dismiss a technology or product from their deliberations. It’s often this generally wider vision and in particular, the boost to ‘peripheral knowledge’ that leads to a ‘light bulb moment’ for new product ideas and innovations.

I encourage engineering managers and SME leaders to let their engineers and technicians out of the office to visit at least one trade show, accept invitations to attend technical seminars and importantly, arrange on-site visits with their customers’ engineering teams. A little planning and ‘white space’ will feed the curiosity and interest necessary for engineers to find new or unplanned outcomes and might well enable specific objectives to be achieved. The cost of these away-from-the-desk activities is negligible and the potential upside outcome for a business and its people from ‘Not Just Surfing – but Seeing Touching and Talking’ could well be transformational.

Adam Fletcher is Chairman of the Electronic Components Supply Network (ecsn) a business association established in 1970 that today offers support to all organisations with an interest in electronic components throughout the entire lifecycle of their product. Fletcher is also Chairman of the International Distribution of Electronics Association (IDEA), an association of electronic components associations whose objective is to share best industry practice.

Further information about The Electronic Components Supply Network and afdec may be found at the following website: www.ecsn-uk.org with regular industry updates available to all on the Breaking News pages.