Distributors of electronic components are currently facing challenging times. On the one hand, as the DMASS figures for the fourth quarter of 2017 show, they record demand. On the other side, the pressure on the industry is growing and the uncertainties facing traders in Europe are increasing. The booming demand for products leads to increasing lead times for many component manufacturers. Also, suppliers often push ahead with their activities in the focus markets, leaving little room for their sales partners. Digital First distributors compete with traditional, design-in-focused distributors by providing engineers with access to a wide range of components through the Internet, with transparent availability and next-day delivery.
Device manufacturers and designers face their competitive challenges: the key factors in the success of Time to Market and the adoption of new technologies are as important in many industries as quality and cost. The days when the component distributor can monopolize access to customers and act as a gatekeeper for the supply of components are over. Distributors need to find new ways to address their customers.
Complex HMI – thanks to networking
In the custom development of Human Machine Interface (HMI) applications, the distribution industry has made great strides in recent years. Due to the increasing interconnectedness of the megatrends, IoT and Industry 4.0, even straightforward devices require a user interface that goes beyond the traditional buttons and switches for core functions. At the same time, every smartphone user is accustomed to using the touchscreen as a controller of the device as well as an information display. The technical and design requirements for the HMI are often singular for each application, which means that HMI systems usually represent customer-specific solutions and are not standardized.
The question arises for device manufacturers as to whether it is worth building up internal development and production capacities for the HMI or whether this activity should be outsourced. The answer often depends on how manufacturers see the HMI as a potential competitive advantage – be it through product differentiation or cost leadership. Those who see the HMI as the focus of their competitive strategy are likely to choose to develop in-house skills. Those for whom the HMI plays a supporting role are likely to outsource the associated processes. At least that’s the theory.
No binary question: Develop or buy HMI?
In fact, the situation is not binary. Even companies that choose to design and build their HMI solutions can benefit from working with a reseller in this area. Despite the pressures of the sales landscape, their traditional strengths remain. Distributors have a good overview of the market and can provide customers with valuable technical advice, recommendations and advance information about current technological developments. This enables an efficient flow of information and the timely implementation of new technologies. Distributors are also able to supply equipment manufacturers with products from component manufacturers that they otherwise would not be able to access.
At the other end of the spectrum, companies that do not see the HMI as a strategic focus often recognize the importance of the quality of the HMI. You know that this is part of the application that users interact with directly – a bad experience using the HMI can negatively impact the entire product and damage the manufacturer’s reputation. Even companies that do not invest in their HMI development and production should, therefore, undergo strict controls on the purchased HMI solution. It is essential to consider not only the performance and appearance of the system but also the life and quality requirements. A good distributor can give objective advice on some component options,
Added value through technically deep system integration
While EMS, CEM or ODM companies traditionally include complete HMI solutions in their portfolio, distributors have also found their way into this area in recent years. By offering a deeper level of pure system integration, they can offer their customers added value and open up new and different ways for themselves. On the one hand, they can relieve customers’ F & E department without having to manage an additional supplier relationship in the form of a dedicated EMS / ODM / CEM. In their role as systems integrators, they also offer their customers the benefits of closer relations with component manufacturers, allowing more direct access to novel technologies. The simplification of the supply chain also offers the potential for cost savings. The advantage of this approach is for the distributor to Developing your IP and providing turnkey solutions increases your profitability and reduces the impact of competitive pressure on the business. However, the fact that the distributor gains more bargaining power in this way can also be seen as a potential hazard for device manufacturers.
Distributor Atlantik Elektronik has a diverse HMI product portfolio that addresses very different applications. Unlike competitors, however, Atlantik Elektronik decided not to set up its production facility for HMI systems but works directly with manufacturers in Asia and Europe. This allows the company to offer customers a comparatively wide range of options at different prices and technical requirements, resulting in a high degree of flexibility in the selection and marketing of the latest technologies. Atlantik also offers HMI options that go beyond the usual presentation and touch or keyboard and mouse.
Gesture recognition ensures hygiene
An exciting alternative to using gestures on a touch panel is the control of gesture machines. This is particularly the case in applications where the use of a capacitive touch panel is problematic. In medicine, surgical environments are increasingly digitized. Surgeons look at detailed images on modern displays. However, the surgeon is limited because he is unable to interact directly with conventional interfaces, as this would violate surgical hygiene rules. The use of gesture recognition could allow the surgeon to directly control and regulate his images while complying with sanitary requirements. It is possible, for example,
A particularly suitable solution includes a so-called time-of-flight sensor (ToF). This combines a camera with a laser transmitter and receiver to produce intensity and depth images that provide a very precise 3D image stream. This image stream can then be analyzed to detect a potentially large range of movements and gestures in the X, Y and Z axes that can be used to drive an interface. The ToF technology is already available and is also suitable for high-end applications.
Voice control as an alternative
Another alternative for HMI is the use of a voice control system. This technology is increasingly permeating our everyday lives with digital assistants on our smartphones and computers, intelligent speakers and voice-controlled vehicle navigation. Although these applications are not yet perfect, the pace of development is enormous and the underlying hardware technology will soon be ready for use in industrial and other high-end applications. HMI developers have two options in this context: On the one hand, a standardized variant that uses the language services of Amazon, Google or Microsoft, and on the other hand customized offers with a special design for specific applications.
The first option offers significantly faster time-to-market as both hardware and software platforms already exist and integration into the corresponding ecosystem is relatively straightforward. The downside to this approach is the dependency on access to the cloud and privacy concerns. The customized approach allows the designer to tailor the interfaces to their respective system requirements and is appropriate to address data security concerns. However, this approach requires a significant amount of time and resources, especially in software implementation.