Closing the loop

A week ago I posted my lament over the Digi Key paper catalog’s demise.  In that post, I had hoped to convey that Digi Key is a really good company and that I use them as my initial source for any parts search.  Part and parcel with that was the paper catalog.  I’ve always thought Digi Key did a fabulous job:  sold parts in small quantities, easy user interface, stocked almost everything, very easy to purchase.  Basically they are the Amazon of the electronics distribution game.  I think they are a first class operation.

Well, I had an opportunity to see this in action.  A couple of days after that initial post, a lady (I am not going to post her name) from Digi Key contacted me directly to talk about the post.  She was very nice and was searching for more information about how I use Digi Key.  Before I delve into what we talked about, I want to take a moment to recognize that someone at Digi Key is scouring the web and looking for mentions.  In addition, they found the my blog, which is fairly new and very small.  In addition, they read it and decided to take action.  In addition, they contacted me for feedback.  They did all that to try to make their company better.  By all accounts Digi Key is a very successful company – they did not need to spend any time investigating my blog.  But they did.  I think that shows one small, small part of why they are successful.  They take the extra step.

Moving on, the talk was fairly focused on their web site, and how they can make it better.  I showed them how I use the web site (Dynamic Catalog and product index) and compared it to how I use the paper catalog.  I have no idea what they will do with that info or if I provided them with anything valuable.  However, I am very impressed that they are overturning every stone to keep their company chugging along.  Unfortunately, they aren’t going to print me a personal paper catalog every six months.  Other than that I have no complaints.

Digi-Key Logo

Passing of a giant. . . catalog

I am late to the party on this, but I just discovered that Digi Key  has stopped printing and mailing a paper version of its catalog.  That really hurts.  I don’t want to end up sounding like this guy, but I am going to spend the rest of this space lamenting and kvetching.

I started engineering in earnest in 1994 – the internet was. . . . not the internet.  Getting paper data sheets, application notes, and manufacturer sell sheets was the only way to get information.  Chief among that set was the Digi Key catalog.  There were other mail order distributors such as Newark and Allied that could handle the small quantities that we normally deal in.  However, I always preferred the Digi Key layout over any of the others.

The chief benefit of the layout was that like parts were grouped together, regardless of the manufacturer.  For example, all of the enclosures were in one spot.  If I needed to find an enclosure I could go to the enclosure section and easily “window shop” until I found one with the correct dimensions, materials, and price.  It is kind of embarrassing how many times I have specified items for a designs using that method.  The other catalogs never seemed to group their contents in such an easy to find manner.

Another good aspect of the Digi Key catalog was the amount of information they packed into the description.  Usually there was a basic mechanical drawing, environmental specs, basic operational information, and price with price breaks.  You could be half-way to finding a part using the catalog.  Basically I learned how to specify parts “backwards”.  If I could find it in Digi Key and it looked like I fit, I would then go in search of the manufacturers information to see if it really worked.  I knew if it was in the catalog, I could use it and Digi Key could get it too me overnight, if necessary.

Even with the advent of the Internet, I still did a bunch of design that way.  I understand why they stopped printing the catalog and shipping it out every few months.  The final catalog has 2776 pages and weighs four and a half pounds.  Sending that out to tens of thousands of prospective customers must have become cost-prohibitive.  In fact, Digi Key announced that they were stopping printing and the mailing the catalog around the time of this announcement.  I know correlation is not causation, but the timing is suspicious.

Digi Key has replaced the paper catalog on-line with their Dynamic Catalog.  I’ve used this a few times and find it. . . . lacking.  Essentially, they fall into the same trap they so long avoided:  everything is listed by manufacturer and product family instead of a cross pollination that their paper catalogs so often had.  For example, if you were looking for an LCD character module, this is the overview you get – a listing of character module manufacturers with some pictures.  No pricing, no specifications, no mechanical data.  You have to individually click through to each manufacturer and look at each part.  It makes comparison shopping difficult and frustrating.

Their normal on-line product index is a bit better as seen here for LCD character modules.  Again, its missing the pricing and there does not seem to be any rhyme or reason to the initial layout.  I understand that the rows can be sorted and this is a nice feature, but I am lamenting the passing of the great design that their paper catalog had.  I had hoped that they still laid out the catalog and loaded it onto their web site in a PDF form, but I could not find that.  I will get used to the new form from Digi Key, and I am sure their Dynamic Catalog will improve, but for the first time that I can remember, they have made my job harder and not easier.

Digi-Key Logo

Public Service Announcement

Solutions Cubed provides easy to use components to robot building.  We are fully on-board with the “robotization” of the world.  However, with great power, comes great responsibility.  In the effort to help guide our customers onto the righteous path, we present this video from the author of the new book, Robotapocalypse.

Book Report–The Idea Factory

Wow!  I am not going to dwell too much on the writing or the methods of the reporting (by all my measures, everything was just fine), but story behind The Idea Factory is amazing.  I am too young (if that can be said about a guy on the wrong side of 40), to remember any of the big inventions and breakthroughs detailed in the books, so most of the information in this book was new to me.  I am suitably awed.  Basically, from about 1920 to 1970 Bell Labs was THE driver for technology development in the United States.  Here is a small breakdown, as I remember it:

  • Bell labs was the research arm for AT&T (long distance company) and Western Digital (phone equipment manufacturer).  It was semi-autonomous, but was funded from the revenues from AT&T and Western Digital.  The company itself was a monopoly regulated by the US government.
  • It was setup to do basic/fundamental research, development engineering, and manufacturing engineering.  Because of the steady revenue stream from AT&T and Western Digital, Bell Labs could spend literally 1000s of man-years and billions of dollars to develop a technology from a basic idea through a manufactured product.
  • At its height, Bell Labs employed over 10,000 people.  On the engineering side, most of the employees were recruited from the cream of American universities (MIT, Cal Tech, Stanford, etc), and were, themselves, the top of the class.
  • The majority of the employees, worked in one location, at first in downtown New York, and later in New Jersey.
  • The building that everyone worked in, was specifically designed to foster innovation.  People’s offices were purposefully mixed up so that a physicist could be next door to a mechanical engineer and a mathematician.  In addition, the offices were off of a 700 foot long hallway.  It was generally accepted that everyone had to work with their office doors open.  That way if someone had to talk to a colleague, they were forced to walk down a long hallway and interact with all sorts of people.  Ideas would naturally germinate from this simple architecture.
  • The management of Bell Labs (specifically Mervin Kelly) fostered a research environment where the research department was free to work on whatever they wanted.  Eventually something would come of it.

Here is a list of some of the things that labs invented during its run:

Without these contributions, you would definitely not be able to read this blog post.  The people behind these inventions were fascinating and the stories of the development were interesting throughout.  I highly recommend this book for anyone that wants to know about those that came before.

Checking out history and maybe learn a little something

I just started reading The Idea Factory by Jon Gertner.  It tells the story of Bell labs from just after WWII to the mid ‘70s.  It has been getting good reviews from a wide array of disparate sources.  I like reading about the roots of modern technology, and this book promises to cover a great swath of it (the transistor, communication theory, operating systems, etc).  I will give a review of the book when I finish.


The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation