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Supply Chain Trends

Email Is the Enemy in Electronic Parts Buying

Everyone involved in the electronic parts industry knows the pain of email. Sure, it’s the most common way to transmit pricing and availability data, but it’s also a royal pain.

Everyone involved in the electronic parts industry knows the pain of email. Sure, it’s the most common way to transmit pricing and availability data, but it’s also a royal pain.

Inboxes quickly fill up with massive spreadsheet attachments. Information is lost in the clutter. Important messages are missed or forgotten. And highly sensitive data is left exposed.

Unfortunately, traditionally there have been few effective ways to avoid the email mess. EDI (electronic data interchange), in particular, is a good option, but it’s far too expensive for all but the largest contract manufacturers, distributors, and suppliers to implement. That means plenty of communication between electronic part buyers and sellers still takes place over email and its poor cousins, phone and fax. That’s a major problem in the industry, and if it’s not solved, there are major consequences coming down the line.

Here are the top five problems with using email for sharing data on electronic part pricing and availability—and how innovative distributors, suppliers, and CMs are solving those problems.

Email Problem #1: It’s Never-Ending

It’s a constant battle to move more emails out of your inbox than you receive in a day. It’s an assault that lasts all day and all night—and doesn’t stop for holidays, vacations, or weekends. The result? You don’t spend enough time working with your customers—and when you do, you’re often worried less about customer service and more about simply crossing something off your to-do list.

Email Problem #2: It’s Insecure

Encrypted email attempts to offer a secure way of transferring data back and forth. The problem is, almost nobody in the electronic parts industry actually uses encrypted email. Encryption tools are cumbersome, and it’s common for senders and receivers to utilize incompatible platforms. Plus, once they’re decrypted, emails are still archived in an insecure fashion.

Any weak link in the chain renders the message vulnerable, and those weak links are everywhere. Even if you’re doing encryption right, what happens when your laptop is stolen, or you leave your smartphone at the movie theater?

When you’re using email to make dinner plans, that’s no big deal. But what about when you’re sending confidential customer-specific pricing? Or worse, when you’re corresponding about work for the government? In the latter case, email’s lack of security is doing more than compromising your data; depending on what information is being shared, you might actually be violating certain government regulations.

Email Problem #3: It Offers No Revision Control

Simply put, email is a data integrity nightmare. Think about it: There’s no revision control for a file once it’s been attached and sent. As a result, multiple versions of pricing books exist at any one time—old and new both. There’s simply no way to enforce that your counterpart is seeing the data you need them to see, or that you’ve received the correct data. And confirming the data, of course, means sending yet more emails or making phone calls.

Email is an inherently manual process; it’s up to both the sender and receiver to handle the information correctly. A wrong attachment or mislabeled file can create havoc out of little more than a single keystroke or click of the mouse. What’s worse, if you’re sending a file and realize you made a mistake, there’s no way to guarantee the recipient will get or use a re-sent corrected version. By the time a second version of a file comes, they’re probably on to something else—like a different email. Your good data sits in their inbox, while old versions remain in use.

Email Problem #4: It’s Slow

It’s not so much that email itself is slow; it’s perfectly fine for zipping off quick notes and correspondence. The issues are with how email is often used in the electronic parts industry—sharing pricing and availability data.

Let’s say that you’re a distributor on the receiving end of an Excel pricing book from a supplier. It’s a big spreadsheet, so it spends at least a few minutes in transmission. When it arrives (assuming it isn’t instantly buried in your inbox by the hundreds of other messages you get each day), you need to open it, save it, and place it onto either your local hard drive or a shared environment. All this takes time; but if you don’t immediately take care of the attachment, you’ll probably never be able to find it again.

Need to confirm information, or get an updated price? That spreadsheet hasn’t changed since you saved it, so you’re emailing someone at the supplier (and who knows when they’ll get back to you), picking up the phone or sending a fax. With emailed spreadsheets, you’re dealing with data that’s outdated essentially as soon as you get it, and gets longer in the tooth every day. In an industry where minutes matter, that’s a big problem.

Email Problem #5: It’s Expensive

Think about what wasted staff time costs your business. Or the expenses that always come with errors and confusion. Or the cost of recovering from a data breach. At the end of the day, email is not a cheap proposition. And that’s before you get to the costs of IT staffers to keep the system running (even as it’s stressed by thousands of massive attachments), data bills, and legacy hardware.

The problem is, the most common replacements for email as a means of sharing pricing and availability data have long been EDI and internal APIs (application programming interface). These certainly address speed, data integrity, and security, but they both carry very large total costs of ownership. They’re expensive to plan for, expensive to set up, expensive to maintain; for the most part, they are well out of the reach of small and mid-sized suppliers, distributors, and CMs.

The Solution

The last two years have seen the rise of highly configurable, secure real-time data exchange solutions driven by platform-agnostic API technology. Some of these solutions are capable of securely accepting data in almost any format (EDI, XML, SOAP, JSON, XLS, CSV, and so forth), normalizing it, and delivering it automatically to a web portal, an ERP or MRP system, or directly into Excel. That means the flow of data is constant, and the most up-to-date and accurate pricing and availability information is always available. Pricing jobs that once took two to three weeks of elapsed time can now be completed in five minutes, with data encrypted the entire way.

Rather than accepting pricing books from suppliers via email, distributors can automatically ingest the data into their desired system, no matter the format in which it started. Likewise, distributors can share customer-specific pricing with their customers just as easily. There’s no need to change business practices or shift file formats; data can go into a leading API-based data exchange solution in any fashion, and come out any way it needs to.

Tony Powell co-founded Orbweaver Sourcing, LLC in 2012 and is the firm’s chief technology officer, where he is responsible for driving business strategy and all technological aspects of the company. Prior to founding Orbweaver, Powell worked for nearly two decades in various software engineering positions. In 2013, he worked with four other engineers to pass the patent, “protocol agnostic dynamic messaging platform and a system and a method thereof.” Tony is a graduate of Muhlenberg College and received his MBA from Lehigh University. He can be reached at [email protected].

Based in Bethlehem, Pa., Orbweaver is the first and only provider of complete, real-time supply chain integration solutions for the electronics manufacturing industry. 

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