Re-defining the role of electronics distribution

25th June 2014
Nat Bowers

In this article, Richard Curtin, Global Director of Strategic Alliance at element14, and Eddie Sinnott, VP Portfolio, Strategy & Marketing at Wolfson, discuss why the development of the recently launched Wolfson Audio Card demonstrates that the role of electronics distribution is being re-defined to support a new generation of innovation.

The Internet of Things, industrial automation, alternative energy, wearable tech and 3D printing all present huge opportunities for growth and innovation in the electronics industry. However, for this technological revolution to take place, engineers need the building blocks to help them turn concepts into reality. This is something the high service distribution industry should excel at.

Yet, with these new technologies evolving rapidly and traditional boundaries blurring, it’s clear that the millions of engineers and purchasing professionals worldwide are in need of a new standard in high service electronics distribution; one that delivers a step change totally geared towards what engineers need to innovate and succeed.

Simply focusing on distribution is no longer good enough. The time has come to put the customer first, with a proposition that ensures they get what they really need: information, research, collaboration, products and manufacturing all in one place.

By forging close links with semiconductor suppliers, working closely with customers at the beginning of the design cycle (to access information and advice, before they even start buying products) and supporting products through to manufacture, element14 is now delivering this step change.

“This new model of high service distribution is real and happening,” says Richard Curtin. “A year ago we might have met suppliers and the conversation would typically be about how many components we hoped to sell from their latest product introduction. Now we talk to their product development teams and work with them to add value through new product offerings to support customers in a variety of applications.”

Eddie Sinnott comments: “It’s abundantly clear from our experience with the Wolfson Audio Card development that element14 isn’t just a distributor of evaluation boards and components. The desire to forge closer links with suppliers, and the resources amassed through clever strategic acquisitions like CadSoft, Embest and AVID, have given rise to this unique full service capability to support development projects through design, test and manufacture.”

Sinnott continues: “Customers aren’t just looking for good suppliers and the latest products, but rather a combination of technologies in the form of solutions that can help them achieve a fast time-to-market, lower engineering overheads and ultimately reduce the number of suppliers they need to work with. element14’s forward-thinking approach to the channel, respect in the supply chain and broad supplier base means that they can bring people together to create these solutions.”

Richard Curtin adds: “From the supplier perspective this ability to bring people together to build a combined solution, but consolidate the process so that each supplier only has to deal with us, is also very attractive.”

The origins of the Audio Card

The idea for the Wolfson Audio Card dates back to March 2013 when the teams met in Edinburgh looking for a vehicle to crystallise the strategic partnership.

Wolfson was in the process of implementing its ongoing audio platform strategy geared towards growing its business beyond the traditional consumer electronics space (e.g. mobile handsets, tablets), where it has been very successful, and into a whole new generation of audio use cases in areas such as the Internet of Things and wearable technology.

At that time the Raspberry Pi phenomenon was in full swing, but the standard Raspberry Pi board was only designed to deliver basic audio capability. This presented a great opportunity for Wolfson to not only be part of the Pi revolution, but to leverage the value of each company and support Wolfson’s strategy to ensure its technology is made available to a much broader set of applications…. and so the Wolfson Audio Card project was born!

Eddie Sinnott comments: “It would be difficult to specify the single biggest contribution element14 made to the Audio Card development process. The value is multifaceted: the supplier base enabling them to put together that card from product in-house; the unique design, manufacture and test capability; the relationship with the Raspberry Pi Foundation; the industry pedigree and online logistics; and the scalable front-end support. If you were to remove any one of those elements then customers may not get as full an impact as an experience. The whole is very much greater than the sum of the parts.”

The hardware and software design process

To kick off the process Wolfson went to China to meet element14’s Embest team face-to-face to understand Embest’s capabilities, which culminated in the creation of a schedule for the hardware and software development. In order to put together a high quality, highly differentiated solution that would have an impact on the market and amplify both brands, it was essential to do a good job on both aspects.

Wolfson provided an initial brief in terms of components to use and use cases, enabling element14 to take the lead on putting together the draft hardware design. In parallel, Wolfson devised a plan for the software. Given that the Audio Card needed to run alongside the Raspberry Pi, Wolfson worked closely with the on-board Broadcom BCM2835 SoC and ARM ARM1176JZF-S 700 MHz processor.

Wolfson is a major contributor to the Android / Linux audio kernel and has written software for a lot of the drivers available on the market today, but the need to adapt Wolfson’s software to work with the bespoke Raspbian OS was a new challenge.

Once both parties had reviewed and signed off the card design, element14, through Embest, was able to turn around prototypes within a couple of weeks. A small amount of hardware redesign of the initial prototypes was then needed but the final design was signed off very quickly.

The longest and most challenging part of project was the development and testing of software drivers which eventually led to the launch of the card being delayed, as neither party was prepared to compromise on quality and wanted to be able to guarantee the best audio experience possible.

Eddie Sinnott comments: “From the outset we were adamant we wanted to launch the Audio Card with support for a range of audio formats and audio bit rates right up to 24-bit / 192 kHz HD audio files. We also wanted to dynamically cater for really basic compressed 16-bit / 44.1 kHz MP3 files and everything in between. We didn’t want the customer to have to decide up front what kind of audio they required; they should just be able to plug it in and it will work. As a result the testing stage was incredibly complex.”

Marketing and support

Toward the later stages of the project, once the card was reaching release standard, Wolfson engaged closely with the element14 marketing team to help create the various collateral required to launch the product. This included videos, documentation, schematics and crucially, creating a presence on the element14 Community not just for marketing purposes, but also product support.

The element14 Community proved a critical channel for reaching a breadth of customer base that just isn’t possible through traditional channels. The intent to launch the Audio Card was announced in October 2013, approximately five months before the board was available to buy. From this point onwards, a small but demanding group of members joined the forum. The development team was then able to engage with them during the design process to help make the final product better.

Multifaceted value

Wolfson has typically developed boards to support the design and development of its chips in the past, handling the design and test in-house and subcontracting the assembly. The difference with the Audio Card is that it is a product in itself and on a different scale to what Wolfson is used to.

Eddie Sinnott comments: “With our previous boards we’re usually building dozens, not 10,000 in a few weeks of launch. In theory, Wolfson could have developed the Audio Card itself but the time, effort, resources and project management required would have been hard to justify.”

Sinnott continues: “There’s something very powerful about having the distributor who will be selling the product to customers actually making such a large contribution to the product’s development, all the way through from design to launch and post launch support. Not only does element14 have the knowledge of the customer base and what’s going to work, but you know you’re also getting the teams investment and mindshare, especially if the company will be selling multiple competing lines.”

A bright future

Making the Wolfson Audio Card project happen took a lot of strategic management willpower and dedication from the design team, but thanks to its success the future is bright for the blossoming Wolfson and element14 relationship.

“We’re in discussion with element14 on developing future products,” says Eddie Sinnott. “The great thing about Embest is that is operates a number of different business models, which includes being a supplier of boards to other parts of our channel. We have a roadmap of new cards and new products under development with element14 and several of its suppliers so watch this space.”

Richard Curtin concludes: “By connecting technology, customers and suppliers, element14 is re-defining the role of electronics distribution. Our strength in early design means we’re talking to hundreds of thousands of potential users of new technology at exactly the point when they’re considering what components to use – we are perfectly placed to seed the market for suppliers.

“We’re talking to end users in a very different way to anyone else, with channels and technology that no one else offers, and a digital way to launch new products for our suppliers. Working with a global industry leader like Wolfson sets the standard for our other suppliers who are excited to invest in this cutting edge and unique way of taking their latest technology products to market.”

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