Will you source electronic components through tablet or smartphone applications in 2012? Component distributors are betting engineers and purchasing folks will be conducting many more of their procurement activities via mobile devices.
Distributors have begun to offer free, downloadable apps, but it's not clear if engineers are ready to do more than look up prices and check availability. The technology won't be a problem. Emerging technologies such as HTML5 will make graphics pop, enhancing the image on smaller screens and enabling engineers to get a full view of products.
At Digi-Key Corp. , smartphone and tablet apps should begin to support global growth this year, as the ability to purchase components through free downloadable apps for mobile devices gets easier. Digi-Key president Mark Larson, in an interview, declined to predict to what extent mobile apps could contribute to overall revenue, but as more businesses use mobile devices to find information about products on the go it could become a more important strategy.
Though the market is in its infancy, it turns out that mobile procurement is growing quickly, and so are services supported by Digi-Key on Apple's and Google's operating systems. Larson said thousands of customers (not hundreds of thousands) choose to make purchases and order components through the distributor's mobile applications. The app for the Android OS lets engineers find parts by scanning the barcode. It also lets them create packing lists from invoiced orders.
Digi-Key isn't the only electronic components distributor to offer an application running on the Android OS. Premier Farnell plc (London: PFL.L) and Element14 offer up mobile applications. Avnet Inc. (NYSE: AVT) also supports a mobile application for that company's Supply Chain Central, launched in October 2011. Customers must have an Avnet user ID and password to access their account.
John Sanders, director of supply chain at Avnet Electronics Marketing Americas, explains the Supply Chain Central (SCC) app is an information tool, not a shopping cart. Avnet wants to send engineers to AvnetExpress.com to purchase components and "to also cross-reference part numbers, download data sheets, and do a parametric search for what you need, as well as downloading a bill of materials," he says.
Avnet designed the SCC app for customers that want to manage their supply chains, but want an option beyond computers. "The app gives them quick access to order information in a digestible format for their mobile device," Sanders said.
While the free SCC app allows engineers to search orders and view details and tracking information, it's not clear if Avnet will support ordering through the app any time soon.
The searchable categories of orders include open, past promised date, canceled, closed, in transit, recently shipped, shipped within 30 days, upcoming, and potentially delinquent orders. With the SCC app, customers can quickly find out how much consigned inventory they have for a specific part number. They also can determine how much inventory is in the pipeline for a specific project, or if an important order shipped, complete with tracking number. Sanders notes that the goal was to provide customers with simple access to these answers from their smartphones or tablets.
Other companies are jumping in with Android apps that have the ability to either look up information on products or facilitate their purchase. Search on the keywords "electronic components distributor" in Google's Android Market, and you'll find an app from Supply Frame called FindChips, and Magetmedia, which introduces an app for sourcing industrial machinery, tools, and materials across 20 industries supporting manufacturers in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Middle East, and Africa.
Purchasing components through these apps may not be prevalent today, but mobile apps will become the future for online ordering. Big-box retailers have already begun developing and distributing apps through the Android Market. Take Target, for example. The Target app downloaded right to the phone lets consumers browse and purchase favorite items. It also sends alerts to the phone on special offers, checks prices, and more. Would engineers and supply chain experts get locked into a distributor's apps if it could do the same?