Global components supplier Electrocomponents, a FTSE 250 company which trades under RS Components and Allied Electronics brands, sees 3D printing as an opportunity and not a threat, according to group finance director Simon Boddie.
"Innovation excites us. Everything from wearable technology to the 'Internet of things' is an opportunity. We are always looking out for the next big thing, where components can be sourced via us – right from the R&D stage to the production line," Boddie told CIO UK.
"When 3D printing first caught people's imagination around 2010, a kit would cost you $100,000 and would be the size of a car. After people got tinkering, open source versions about the size of a microwave oven started emerging for $1500."
Whether it is supplying components for uber-enthusiasts looking to build their own 3D printer or the whole kit, Boddie feels his company is well placed. Like any other company, Electrocomponents proactively markets its wares.
"But we're also reactive via DesignSpark – a completely open community forum for engineers developed by us. It is not a mundane products review website with our logos splattered over it. It is a forum for feedback, engagement and open source design sharing, which while backed by us, does not bombard users with aggressive sales pitches."
Started in 2010, the forum currently has around 250,000 registered members. "Of course, the idea is to make a sale but we are better for it too in more ways than you'd conventionally imagine. Students and trainee engineers actively engage with the forum for experiments and projects," Boddie says.
"The recipients tend to remember us upon completion of their education or training – whether it's viewing us as a potential future employer or thinking of us when procuring components for a future employer."
The company's sales of Raspberry Pi make a case in point for the forum. "It started as a flag-up on a DesignSpark post a few years ago. Today it's a multi-million pound business for us. Both parties came together via a community forum. You couldn't even imagine a business connection being made this way 10 years ago."
In such a setting, Boddie also feels that the Electrocomponents IT team lead by group CIO Phil Cook is definitely in the innovators camp.
"It's the innovators who have brought around a different way of thinking. We sell 550,000 components and are a legacy brand that began life selling via conventional methods in the 1930s. As recently as 10 years ago we were spending £20 million on our catalogue."
"We're now spending around £5 million on it and as e-commerce grows our spending with Google [on search engine adwords/marketing] has become almost as big. The catalogue has shrunk, but our entire product portfolio is on web-display."
Change is in the air and Electrocomponents' crew of innovators are driving that change, says Boddie. "What's more, while we'll never lose our human touch, the pace of digitisation and direction of travel are pretty clear."
(Top image a 3D print of the CIO logo made by architecture house Foster and Partners)