By Don Dingee
When you think of electronics distribution, what comes to mind? Passive components, chips, boards, and servers are still part of the value. Customers today also need software, sensors, development kits, system integration, field services, financial support and more. Applications like the IoT, smart cities, smart manufacturing, retail automation, and more demand new AI and edge computing technology. Project lifecycles are also getting longer. For distributors, it all means new opportunities to add value.
One of Advantech’s ecosystem partners is Avnet, headquartered in Phoenix, AZ. For a perspective on how the role of distribution is changing and what’s trending in 2021, we turned to an industry veteran. Nicole Enright, President at Avnet Integrated, recently sat down for a conversation with Don Dingee. Here’s the highlights of their interview.
DD: Let’s get started. You’ve been with Avnet 18 years. How have things changed during that time?
NE: It’s a little hard for me to believe I’ve already been here 18 years, I feel too young for that to be true! A lot of things have changed, and some things have stayed the same.
The biggest change is we’ve grown substantially. When I started here, we were about a $2 billion company – now, we’re an $18 billion company. Acquisitions have played a big part. We’re always looking to expand our global footprint, extend our scale, and offer our customers new capabilities.
What hasn’t changed is our culture – even through growth, acquisitions, and integration. We’re strongly focused on our employees, customers, and suppliers, the three key pillars to our business. It’s not uncommon to find employees that have been here 10, 20, 30, or even 40 years like our new CEO, Phil Gallagher. You don’t see that much in companies anymore. I think that’s because when people come here, they find a place they want to be and people who share the same values. They enjoy serving customers and suppliers, so they stay and build their career.
In 2021, we’ll celebrate Avnet’s 100th anniversary. That’s a great testament to how we continuously transform and remain relevant. Our agility and nimbleness, in an ever-changing market, makes us able to withstand the test of time.
DD: You spent two years as VP of Avnet Integrated Americas, and recently now the President of Avnet Integrated. You’ve been working with embedded customers for over a decade. What drew you toward the embedded side of the business?
NE: You’re right, I’ve worked with our embedded teams for well over a decade – in strategic planning, marketing, HR, and transformation roles. I really wanted the opportunity to work in a business focused on solving challenging customer problems with technology.
Since early in my career, I’ve always enjoyed working with customers and creating value-added solutions. That’s exactly what we do now. We work with our embedded customers to understand their challenges first. Then we put together larger, end-to-end, long term solutions. We use technology from great companies like Advantech to help drive business outcomes for our customers.
We’re doing new things like IoT middleware, which I’ll talk a little bit about later, plus financial solutions and lifecycle services. This allows customers to focus on their IP (intellectual property) and value, while we focus on everything else.
DD: You mentioned life cycle, that’s important for the embedded side of the business. It takes three to five years to get results in an embedded design cycle, right?
NE: So that’s exactly right. Most embedded projects have a longer lifecycle than enterprise projects. It’s not so much of a one-time solution, and we move on; instead, we’re continuous partners for the entire project. We help customers move from stage to stage – design, build, scale – and then start a new cycle with the next project when ready. You can only do that when there’s a good relationship and great execution.
DD: Let’s turn to trends. First, smart cities, where pilots in lighting, parking, traffic, energy, and more are happening. How is Avnet helping cities integrate applications, and scale things to production faster?
NE: Smart cities is an interesting and exciting prospect from a business perspective. It’s also exciting for communities improving safety and security, traffic, and the environment. We’re helping in several ways.
What outcome is a customer trying to drive? Knowing that, we configure platforms for capturing and analyzing real-time data. Avnet leverages technology from Advantech and other great embedded suppliers. But we also have 1,800 hardware and software engineers deployed around the globe. These teams collaborate with customers on the best purpose-built solution for their needs.
For example, we’re helping customers scale faster with our IoTConnect platform. Its secure cloud-based enterprise middleware built on Microsoft Azure. It includes infrastructure for storage, compute, and micro services. With device management, control, and analytics, it simplifies deploying IoT solutions. It can apply machine learning, sifting through data and proposing real-time alerts on customer criteria.
One customer, Capstone, uses IoTConnect for a smart water metering solution. They call it “water as a service”, which made me chuckle a bit until we saw the results. Cities can lose as much as 40% of their water in transmission, through leaks, waste, or theft. IoTConnect helps this customer scale meter installations faster. They started with 1,000 installed meters, and after a year of using IoT Connect they had 35,000. Predictive alerts on things like freezing conditions help get ahead of backflow or main breaks. We also do field installation and repair services, so customers don’t need to stock devices. Our global advanced replacement and exchange programs save customers money and time as device counts grow.
See more details on Capstone’s IntelliH2O® intelligent water meter solution using Avnet IoTConnect in this Avnet case study
DD: You mentioned AI; people are saying as many 75% of embedded solutions will use it. What other types of AI-enabled solutions are customers asking you for, and where are you headed next?
NE: AI is a key driving factor in the market, and there are a couple application trends that we’re seeing. There’s the multi-sensor, multipurpose solution for high performance. These are for applications like public security and autonomous vehicles. Then there’s dedicated solutions for things like access control, people monitoring, or anomaly detection.
When we look at technology teams talk about with customers, at the top of the list is intelligent vision. There are many use cases for intelligent vision in retail, autonomous vehicles, healthcare, and other areas. For instance, inventory leakage affects grocery stores and some retailers. One customer is using intelligent vision, video cameras with real time analytics, to detect and stop theft as it’s occurring. It lets most employees focus on customers instead of monitoring the store. Another customer has a solution using intelligent vision driving demand for malls. When you walk in, it analyzes what you’re wearing and carrying, then suggests stores in the mall where you can buy similar items.
The second area, historically our core, is AI solutions for manufacturing. Some things you’d expect, like smart asset monitoring with predictive analytics looking to cut down time. We work with a large coffee company to help identify when coffee makers need maintenance and repairs before failures happen. Then there’s the unexpected, like one customer building human-aware robots for manufacturing lines. Robots are great at precise, repetitive operations, but their movements can strike humans in the way. These human-aware robots detect people nearby and pause if needed. Many others are working on counting people in a building, controlling access, and maintaining social distancing.
DD: Then there’s edge computing. Enterprise approaches like Python coding and container deployment are gaining momentum in embedded. What are you seeing going on in edge computing?
NE: Funny you should mention that. My daughter wants to go into computer software and is already writing code in Python, like so many other programmers now. In edge computing, we’re helping enable some important changes in the way people develop.
Our goal with IoTConnect is enabling collaborative development. It’s a user friendly, rich development toolkit, with APIs for Python and other coding tools. It helps bring solutions to market faster, and at lower cost. We have ready-made solution accelerators that teams can customize, jumpstarting projects. Smart factories, smart warehousing, smart asset monitoring, smart healthcare, and other accelerators are available.
On the hardware side, liquid cooling is going to be essential for processing at the edge. We integrate server-class boards in Schneider Electric’s NetShelter enclosure fitted with Iceotope’s immersion cooling. It’s designed for simple deployment, not only in data centers, but in edge computing environments as well.
Add in our lifecycle services and support, and we’re taking away many hard problems for customers so they can focus on their applications.
DD: By the time folks read this, it’ll be 2021, and I think most of us are glad to leave 2020 behind. What’s the vision you’ve outlined for your Avnet Integrated team going into 2021?
NE: Right, I’m looking forward to the challenges of 2020 being behind everyone, too. I am proud that Avnet Integrated Americas had zero service disruptions due to COVID-19. We’ve continued at 100% capacity, designing, building, and integrating solutions for customer needs. We also kept our focus on customer experience – our recent net promoter score survey was best in class.
My biggest wish for 2021 is reconnecting in person, when it’s safe to do so. We’ve grown accustomed to virtual meetings and happy hours. Now, everybody is over it. It just makes you aware that now more than ever, people matter. Relationships matter. Connecting in person matters. Spending time together matters. We probably didn’t invest enough in our people, teamwork, and engagement during 2020. I’m hopeful our Americas team can be physically together soon, and we can visit customers and suppliers again.
IoT and AI technology, as we’ve talked about here, are our key priorities going into 2021. We see these technologies helping our customers already. There are new solutions they can provide for their customers, and new revenue streams developing. We’re also shaping our future through innovative integration, test automation, liquid cooling, and other big ideas.