Digi-Key Goes Paperless – Are We Ready to Follow?

Traditional catalogue distributor Digi-Key Corp. has recast itself as a fully integrated online distributor by, among other moves, eliminating print versions of its catalogue. Digi-Key is not an impulsive company and has no doubt researched every angle of this move before reaching its decision. (See Digi-Key Drops Print Catalogue.)

The company has been building up its online/mobile offerings for awhile, developing apps for smartphones, transitioning former print titles such as Lighting Solutions TechZone magazine into e-books, and providing soup-to-nuts services like Purchasing Pro, a Web-based resource for buyer-related news and analysis. This full-integration strategy is designed to give buyers and engineers more control over their supply chain management online and the flexibility of being mobile. Buyers and engineers definitely want these capabilities.

On the other hand, there is a segment of the industry that still likes to have a paper catalogue to flip through. To date, catalogue distributors have offset the environmental impact of their printed materials by using eco-friendly paper and inks. (See Catalogues’ Eco-Dilemma.) Digi-Key is the first distributor to eliminate print altogether. Mouser is the only other catalogue distributor, so far, that has publicly stated it intends to keep both its print and online versions available.

As a consumer, I like to have both options open. In most cases, I peruse a catalogue to see what's available, but I do my actual buying online. But I'm not a design engineer, and the electronics supply chain is a whole lot more complicated than a retail purchase. So, EBN readers, what do you say? Are we ready to go truly paperless?

27 comments on “Digi-Key Goes Paperless – Are We Ready to Follow?

  1. Nemos
    March 28, 2011

    I think yes we are ready to follow this eco-friendly movement. I looked into my drawer to check out the last digi-key catalog. Even though it is very well organized if you want to search a specific spare part it is a bit messy the paper version. Also the 1168 pages of the catalog contributes making the search process difficult. I believe that it will be  much better with the on-line catalog. 

  2. Tim Votapka
    March 28, 2011


    You're absolutely right to bring up the assumption that Digi-Key must have researched or surveyed its audience before making the move. You don't make a sweeping change of this magnitude without having some objective data to justify it. Bright ideas don't always turn into successful actions!

    I think the paperless trail will continue to expand, and that's just fine as it only speeds the process of procurement and inventory management. It also opens up intriguing possibles for secure JIT and replenishment contract services…digitally speaking that is.

  3. jbond
    March 28, 2011

    I think we are definitely ready for the changeover. As it is right now most companies offer both versions. Generally the print version is going to end up in a drawer, on a shelf or in the recycle bin. Why not help the environment by not printing them in the first place. In todays age most of the people doing purchasing, business or personal, have access to a computer and generally do their ordering online anyways.

  4. eemom
    March 28, 2011

    I am ready for the change over.  On-line catalogs with their search capability make putting your fingers on exactly what is available much easier.  Even in the consumer world, I can't believe companies spend so much money on catalogs that just go into recycling.  When I want to buy something, I go online and search for it. 

  5. Hardcore
    March 28, 2011


    I like Digi-key… up to a point.

    Usually I buy my more expensive parts from them (FGA), but recently I have been using other suppliers, specifically because the Digi-Key web interface is so poor.

    In some cases it resembles something from the late 90's

    Other times it attempts to follow the layout of several well known Semi-conductor suppliers

    for example  Maxim

    I don't mind using the web for ordering and processing parts, but it would be nice if such interfaces were a little cleaner, the Maxim one for example is obviously designed for hardcore engineers, in fact we could say that the Maxim site is 'a shrine to click boxes and sliders', it resembles some sort of web based front end for a piece of complex test equipment.

    Is this sort of web ordering /part interface system the result of web designers and engineers conferring or is it a direct result of the web designers trying to shoehorn too much data into the browser window?

    When any company decides to take such a significant step, as to moving catalogues and order systems from paper to the Browser window, then they really need to consider the result far more carefully.




  6. mfbertozzi
    March 29, 2011

    Well HC, thnx for details reported in outlining topics and opinions as feedback about article from Barbara. I was doing some thinking in the following senses: paperless is a matter discussed so far; it was about office automation, integration between fax and mail and so on. Believe or not paperless is not strong implemented especially speaking about day-by-day life, procedures from Public Administrations and so on and picture is various and depending or regions (Latam, Northen Europe, MiddleEast, Asiapac). Could Govs all together push and speed up paperless advent definitely or finally end users are in charge of its adoption?

  7. Hardcore
    March 29, 2011


    They are tightly integrated, web interfaces and 'paperless offices' or paperless order processing, in-fact a true paperless system extends far beyond the boundaries of the office fax and photocopier.

    Long gone are the days of custom applications written in C++ or other such languages,where users needed to load software/specialized apps into their computer system before being able to join into the 'paperless' office.

    Since such systems have expanded beyond the bounds of the 'majority' computer systems (MS)  there is a requirement for a highly refined and understandable layout format to communicate information.

    what better medium that a web browser to act as the portal to such systems. (we can say that everyone with a computer has a web browser, and in fact most other digital devices are capable of handling the the various incarnations of data available.)

    However many 'paper-less' implementations are designed incorrectly,that are only capable of handling certain fixed format screen layouts (try taking a look at digi-key, maxim on a portable device), other implementations have usually been hacked onto the outside of the system as new devices/technologies have become available. 

    As a result too many check boxes/sliders/ tables become difficult to layout correctly on portable systems, not to mention that every single byte of layout data has to be transmitted over what ever medium is being used to connect the systems,(imagine an order system that needs to transmit several hundred K of data to a portable device, so that the user can reply back with an order consisting of several hundred bytes), on mobile devices you pay for the bandwidth, both financially and time wise then imagine that user stuck some place in the middle of a poor network coverage area.

    These are the things that many of these systems do not take into account.



  8. Barbara Jorgensen
    March 29, 2011

    Thanks HC–this is the kind of feedback that really helps. I know Digi-Key–as are other catalogs–is very conscious of ease of doing business and have therefore eliminated a lot of registration information a volume distributor may ask for to set up a volume production system. To me, a fully-integrated systems would have as few steps as possible, although a certain amount of information has to be input by the engineer.

  9. Barbara Jorgensen
    March 29, 2011

    This is a bold move for Digi-Key which is usually pretty conservative about major chnages, although they always are thinking one step ahead in terms of what their customers need. Initially, I was a littel surprised, but I have no doubt this decision was made with a lot of customer feedback. What I wonder, is, will users have someone else's catalog on hand while they are working on the Digi-Key site? And does that matter as long as Digi-Key gets the order?

  10. tioluwa
    March 29, 2011

    i think we are ready to go paperless.

    even Jornals that used to come in printed form now have options to e-book version only.

    I agree that some will like to still have hard copies, but since they are just catalogs, i think going completely paperless isn't so bad. its not like a newspaper or a magazine.

    I don't know if DigiKey ran an opinion pole on this first, but i believe they will have wide support. Design engineers have  alife that is completely PC based so it make little difference.

  11. Tim Votapka
    March 29, 2011

    The true indicator will be in Digi-Key's site visit or page hit metrics. That's golden data for a marketing coordinator. The other thing the company will need to do is promote, promote, promote…and that can be done very smartly based on the data gleaned from the metrics.

  12. elctrnx_lyf
    March 29, 2011

    I feel all the catalogues provided by the manufacturers are rarey used now a days. Because of the no of middle people like sales and distribution always have something in their brains to suggest particular components for any design. It is good to go paperleass and improve the user experience on the websites to simply the efforts to find the parts suitable for the application.

  13. Clairvoyant
    March 29, 2011

    I think we are ready to go paper-less. I have received the Digi-key catalogue for the past few years, but rarely actually look at it. Most of the time I know what part I am looking for, and so I just do searches online. One good thing about having a paper catalogue is the ability to easily browse through sections of parts to see what options are available for a particular purpose during the devlopment stage of products.

  14. Backorder
    March 29, 2011

    I see this as a statement from Digi Key more than anything that has got to do with research on ROI from different promotional material. An environment friendly angle probably. I, for one , do not think eliminating printed material is a good idea. There are still many many senior design engineers who are much more comfortable sitting down in their chairs with a cuppa and thumbing away at catalogs reading about devices than they are with having to decipher the maze, that some of these websites have become! If you are having to put an ebook version of it, you better have a print version of it available as well. For anything other than a regular hyperlinked webpage, I would prefer to read it off a hard copy instead of a pdf reader. It is okay to reduce the quantity or control the flow, but eliminating literature is not a good idea.

  15. SunitaT
    March 29, 2011


      Going paper-less is a very good decision considering the fact that everything is going digital. But I am sure it would do no harm to Digi-Key if it gives Traditional catalogue to the customers who prefer it that way.



  16. Parser
    March 29, 2011

    As a design engineer I prefer paperless distributor. First of all I can find a part I am looking for much faster than browsing through pages and with more selections of technical details and second I can download full spec immediately and print it on my printer. Besides printing only a few chosen parts saves paper compare to printing info on all the parts in a book. I like getting email confirmation of shipping and billing process. Yes, possibly nothing is perfect but these advantages make up for other inconveniences. 

  17. prabhakar_deosthali
    March 30, 2011

    One of the advantages of the paperless catalogue, which I can foresee, is that I may be able to customise my own catalogue. For example if I am interested to see only the micro controllers and not interested in the other periphral Ics or memory Ics then I will be able to set my own filters and get only the information I want.  I do not know whether the currently implemented catalogues have this feature but this is very easy to do when such information is available on line.  This automatically saves me from the searching through the index everytime the catalogue is opened.


    Later when most of the companies have their product catalogues on line , I will be able to use google like search engine and get comparison data sheets of all the equivalant parts  for my functional requirement and based upon my selection criterion -price, performance, form factor, packaging, operating range , will be able to quickly home onto the part that I want to put in my design.

  18. Hardcore
    March 30, 2011

    Hi backorder,

    Yes I am such an engineer, I prefer thumbing through data sheets and design manuals, because it leads to new innovative solutions.

    Many such 'paperless' systems are ideal for finding a part…. as long as you know it exists or if you know what you are looking for, this is an issue for an engineer because I would have to say that it limits down the scope to discover new parts or new ways of doing things, unless you specifically set out to find the information.

    Unfortunatly many of these 'paperless' systems to not intergrate with other systems, that is to say you cannot take the data from these systems and directly plug them into other systems, such as  PCB design, Signal emulation, Schematic capture, and test equipment.

    Really there needs to be a completely new paradigm for the supply chain, where everyone agrees on a standard format for data interchange, with suitable extensions to allow data to be extracted for  technical specifications,design,delivery and pricing.

    At that point we could truly say the system was paperless, unfortunatly many people consider 'paperless' to start and stop at their own door or the door of the customer, yes it is getting better, with many suppliers providing information with the products that ship into the supply chain, but then it just seems to reach a certain point and then grind to a halt.

    There does not seem to be a system were I can take my 'tablet device' then load it from a portal with interesting /new design information that I may find interesting. Instead I have to trawl several websites, select  tick boxes & sliders, then manually select the items I want, finally tracking down some PDF data-sheets and if I am really lucky I can put them into a trolly for single delivery, if not I have to manually download each one, or worse contact the supplier sales department to see if they will grace me with a copy.

    In the case of some Microcontrollers or FPGA's this data might run to one or two thousand pages , which are then a real pain to try and bookmark and flick through,

    So as i stated previously I think there needs to be a concerted effort by the industry to sort this out in a standard way.





  19. Backorder
    March 30, 2011

    Prabhakar, The problem is that vendors know much more about their products and their positioning vis-a-vis applications and performance. Hence, it is much more easier for the vendors to create a catalog of their best products or products suitable to certain applications and put the rest in a tabulated form with the most important parameters clearly mentioned all in one place. This would help an engineer to isolate the requirement to a very specific set for which he can then run through the website for more details. If I set out to look out for parts and have to tweak all the searches myself, i might give up pr feel a little lost looking at all the part numbers that appear. Having it in a printed manual form somehow makes it feel more “recommended”. What do you guys think?

  20. prabhakar_deosthali
    March 31, 2011

    When a design engineer needs to look at the parts catalogue , he has his schematic ready. For each of the building blocks of his schematic the functional specs are already frozen- operating voltage, inputs/outputs, clock freq etc. Using on-line catalogues and a google type of search engine the design engineer can then find out the parts matching his requirements . Based upon his preference of  the make, packaging, availability, second source and of course the price, he can finalise the component. He can then get the hard copy of the detailed specs of the selected part to validate his selection. In my opinion similar process, if done with manual catalogues can be quite clumsy and time consuming. For generations the engineers are used to using the hard copy catalogue and for many of them that practice will still be preferred over on-line info. But the new generation design engineers can easily adapt to such tools to shorten their design cycle .

  21. Hardcore
    March 31, 2011

    Hi Prabhakar,

    in general what you say is correct, but there are many companies who do not design this way, especially in China. Sometimes specs are not tightened down at the design stage or they need to re-implement the design using a different technique, call it 'poor' planning and design skills ,but it is still the norm for many companies.

    There is also a secondary issue where a design engineer is tasked with creating a brand new product based on a spec that is so abstract it could be anything, then there is the issue of building prototypes, which generally occurs before a formal spec has been pulled together. In these situations nothing beats a catalogue that you can browse page by page, building a mental inventory of available technology, this is something that the digi-key catalogue does not readily provide.

    I just wish I worked in an environment as organized as the one you appear to be in, generally I have found over the last 20 years that nearly all the companies I have worked for ,have not worked in such an organized manner, possibly because they are smaller organizations or the management structure has allowed this method of working to continue from the inception of the company to the present day.



  22. SP
    March 31, 2011

    Thats a good initiative. Yes the amount of papers that these guys used was quite significant. I have personally stopped getting paper bank updates. Use papers only when really required.

  23. Backorder
    March 31, 2011

    There are practical problems with the online selection tools that are supposed to be user friendly. For instance, most of the specs, even if frozen are not always rigid. If you need 20 mA of current from a driver, you dont mind if it has a maximum output of 50. But a search parameter of 20 mA will result in only the ones matching it or worse not return anything at all. I have personally faced such errors in web applications design and to tell you the truth have helped design some such applications which go into the web portals. They can never be as perfect as a detailed list of parts sorted by key parameters. That said, I prefer to keep only the most essential and relevant material on my desk. But I still prefer to have something I can leaf through and go back to quickly if I need to check again, something which is again much easier than bookmarking a webpage or saving your settings on a web tool.

  24. dbbuyer
    April 1, 2011

    Having been in purchasing for over 30 years and also having to tell an engineer, on many occassions, that just because they found a part in the Digikey or Mouser catalog does not mean that part exists.  Many times I've had to tell an engineer the manufacturer either doesn't make the part or that the delivery is way beyond what is required to implement the part into a design.  Ergo, my incouragement for many years to use only the manufacturers literature, whether it be online or paper.

    I applaud Digikey for it's ecofriendly efforts.

  25. stochastic excursion
    April 1, 2011

    Another sign that the age of flipping through catalogues has come to an end.  Can we expect Digi-Key's web-based catalogue to have a logical layout and personalizable workflow?  A good move for conserving resources, not only for paper that goes into the catalogue, but also think of the post-it notes that will be saved!  We think of cutbacks in hardcopy production as saving trees, but paper can be produced with other raw materials more easily and with better quality.  The word on the street is that lumber companies locked in the use of their products for paper production and this is the status quo today.  In any case tree-huggers have scored a point with Digikey's decision to go paperless.

  26. t.alex
    April 2, 2011

    Backorder, i totally agree with  you. The idea of going paperless is important. Nevetheless, the search tool need to powerful enough for customers to customize their own query. Flipping through the catalog is still more convenient.

  27. maou_villaflores
    April 27, 2011

    I totally agree we should take advantage of the technology and digital age without harming our enviroment.

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