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The middle man

Distributors are commonplace now in photonics, so what do they offer engineers that the manufacturers can't? Warren Clark investigates

In an industry comprising so many component parts, it is inevitable that the distributor has a major part to play in getting product from manufacturer to engineer. But, in today’s world of instant communication and cost-effective global delivery, is the distributor still relevant?

John O’Connor, marketing manager with Photonic Solutions, a UK distributor for many major names, believes that local service is at the heart of a distributor’s offering: ‘Offshore manufacturing companies need to appoint somebody to look after the sales of their products in countries or markets where it does not make commercial sense to have their own office,’ he says. ‘This responsibility would typically fall on the shoulders of a distributor who is a specialist in the particular field, with a deep understanding of the technology, the products, the applications and the customers. Most important, and the basis for our strong growth over the past eight years, is the ability to offer first-class after-sales service and support.

‘In the high tech world of photonics it is vital to have highly-trained and usually PhD-level educated specialists who can look after complex laser systems in the field. It's a big commitment, but is absolutely necessary if a distributor can truly claim to offer any “value added”!’

Local service may well be at the heart of any distributor, but that service should also be valuable to the end user. Graham Rothon of Pacer International agrees that adding value is the most important element that distributors bring to the table: ‘A distributor should be seen very much as a complete solutions provider. We promote value adds, so that the customer knows they can come away with everything they need for a successful installation. To ensure this, we select suppliers that together meet our customers’ needs. We also monitor trends so that we can line up suitable suppliers for when certain sectors take off. We also have our own in-house design engineering resource, so we can work with customers to provide a complete turnkey solution. Engineers need to know that their supplier understands their needs and applications.’

Distribution is also about providing customers with something more than a catalogue and a price list. It’s the same as buying the very latest audio equipment for your home – it’s much more valuable to spend some time with an expert talking through your needs than selecting some kit from an online catalogue. If you’re going to spend thousands of euros, you’ll want to know that what you buy is fit for purpose.

Daniel Jeffery, marketing manager with Lambda Photometrics, echoes this sentiment: ‘Over the past 30 years, we have always striven to offer our customers more than just a product. Our sales and service engineers regularly visit our suppliers for training so that they can work in partnership with our customers and provide in-depth knowledge and advice on their particular application. Backed up with field service and after-sales support, we find our customers appreciate the added value of a good distributor.’

The sales environment continues to change, with the web bringing significant challenges to the world of photonics distribution, as Ian Johnstone of Armstrong Optical says: ‘The continued development of the internet has changed the face of distribution with companies becoming polarised into two camps – those that concentrate on off-the-shelf components, utilising the internet as a virtual sales person, displaying products and taking orders enabling fast/easy purchases of stocked items, while the second camp concentrate on high-value items and complete turnkey solutions and will supply lower value components as an added service. It is these added services, be they localised, such as invoicing in a particular currency, or supplying complete complex systems with the subsequent system responsibility, that differentiate the distributor from the manufacturer for the final end user.

‘The advent of some large multinationals using external purchasing companies for their buying operations introduces pressures on distributors, as a lot of these localised services can be easily accommodated by them. This means that the benefits offered by the distributor become less obvious. However, due to financial pressure placed on these external purchasing departments they do not always have the technical capacity to understand the application and requirements. This therefore leaves room for the more technical distributors to act as consultants/educators on laser and optical technologies, as well as supply chain managers, installers and customer service personnel, thereby maintaining their position within the market. Anyone can set up as a distributor but it takes great skill to maintain the confidence of both customers and suppliers ensuring success for everyone.’

For some suppliers, becoming a distributor has evolved as a sideline to the main business of manufacturing. Chris Varney’s Laser Components is both a manufacturer and a distributor. ‘This enables us to complement our own products with those of others,’ he says. ‘Components within the UV to far-infrared spectrum is our business, but anything not produced by Laser Components we seek to source from a partner supplier and distribute their products. When it comes to selecting a supplier, we look for top-end products offering reliability and exacting components. Wherever possible, we want to build long-term relationships with our suppliers, as this enables us to give a better service.

‘Suppliers need distributors as, often, they won’t have sufficient resource to manage a sales office in a given territory effectively. Also, from a buyer’s point of view, it’s a misapprehension to assume that going through a distributor will always cost you more. Many distributors charge you no more for a product than the original supplier would, when carriage, import duty and ancillary costs are considered. Also, customers should realise that a good distributor will not just sell you something off a datasheet. They should be able to work with you and understand your needs, emulating the manufacturer. Customers do have a lot of options to choose from when if comes to suppliers, so we’d recommend looking closely at the level of service on offer. That’s one way that we differentiate ourselves.’

So, distributors form an essential part of the photonics landscape and should be able to help you turn your design ideas into reality. The good solid advice in this article all points to the same thing – always look for a distributor that can add value to the products they are selling to you.