The technology landscape is changing ever more rapidly; development lead times for new products are getting shorter, as are the intervals at which innovations are coming onto the market. These are trends to which an electronics distributor especially needs to respond, in the view of William Amelio, CEO of Avnet, the parent company of EBV. So Amelio, Avnet’s CEO since the summer of 2016, has launched an extensive programme to transform the whole business. It incorporates some 450 individual projects aimed at enhancing relationships with customers, helping to meet their needs even more closely than before, and offering them even more services. “We are the first electronics distributor to offer genuine end-to-end solutions, carrying a product idea from the initial prototypes through to mass production. In order to achieve that, we had to make significant changes to our business,” says Amelio. His goal is to transform Avnet into an “agent of innovation”. Artificial Intelligence is a key component in those efforts – as a market segment, but above all for the company itself, as Amelio explains in the interview.
What influence do you think Artificial Intelligence (AI) will have in the future on technology and our lives in general?
William Amelio: Futurists are saying that AI will have a bigger impact on society than the industrial and digital evolutions. We’re starting to see more concrete examples of what that might be like as the technologies needed to power AI systems are now becoming more affordable and open-sourced. Artificial Intelligence is already enabling more personalised medicine and treatment plans in healthcare. The vehicles on our roads are increasingly autonomous. Facial, voice and fingerprint recognition are becoming more commonplace as well. Nonetheless, AI is providing input to us and we’re still making the ultimate decision. Over time, these applications will be equipped to make more decisions on our behalf, in theory helping us devote more time to higher-level thinking.
As Artificial Intelligence evolves to other applications over the next few years, it will begin to have exponential impact, especially in areas such as employment. Enabling farmers to maximise the efficiency of their fields or automating repetitive office management tasks will dramatically influence how we manage our work. In turn, AI will create new public policy challenges. Though opinions vary on the scale and timing of its impact, AI does have the capability and potential to help us solve many of the complex problems that plague our society.
What role will AI technology play specifically for Avnet as an electronics distributor?
W. A.: AI will help us optimise our operations, increase customer and employee satisfaction and unearth new market opportunities. Today, we’re exploring using database models for personalised pricing, automating payments and both managing and anticipating customer needs. We’re piloting a project to automate repetitive tasks that don’t add value to our bottom line or to our employees’ happiness. AI can also help us make predictions and deliver more personalised offerings and services to customers, suppliers and to our employee base.
We’ll also be able to speed up and automate processes by offloading some decisions to machines. In particular, I think supply chains will go through a complete metamorphosis resulting from a combination of emerging technologies, including AI. Much of AI’s early promise comes down to better decision-making. This is also the area where AI will begin to significantly impact corporate leadership and culture.
“To get there, we’ll need to shape a new generation of leaders who understand how to work with AI.”
What influence is AI technology having on your products?
W. A.: AI is certainly beginning to create demand for new technologies, which is opening the door for new market opportunities. For example, our new Avnet MiniZed Zync SoC platform improves the performance of sound capture for AI applications. It leverages technologies from Xilinx and Aaware to provide faster, safer far-field voice interfaces. Among our major suppliers, we’re seeing AI drive both hardware and software products, including both FPGA kits and custom chips to hardcode AI neural networks. Many companies are also designing AI-specific chips. This reflects a larger trend of moving some intelligence to the edge instead of housing it all in the cloud, which solves latency and cost issues with the magnitude of processing power that these applications require. Not only are venture capitalists backing start-ups in this area, but large technology powerhouses such as Intel, Google, Apple and Microsoft are getting in on custom chips, too. Many of them are already on our linecard.
Will AI bring any other changes beyond that for Avnet?
W. A.: I mentioned earlier that AI will significantly impact corporate culture and leadership. This is because it will change how we work, how we make decisions and how we structure our business models. To get there, we’ll need to shape a new generation of leaders who understand how to work with AI. This means introducing a new set of skills and evolving some of our existing ones to truly understand the new advantages that AI introduces.
For example, AI systems can help anticipate employee satisfaction and balance workloads accordingly. We can also gain insight from customer surveys more quickly and regularly because we won’t need to go through such laborious data mining. But are the corporate systems and talent needed to enable HR and customer service departments to operate this way available today? Probably not.
AI can do a lot for us, but first we need to learn how to work with it. The way we do business is going to look very different in 10 years, and each of us is going to need to embark on a personal journey of change and continuous learning along the way.
Avnet is now using AI itself – on its “Ask Avnet” platform. Can you tell us briefly what “Ask Avnet” is and how your customers benefit from it?
W. A.: Ask Avnet is designed to deliver a better customer experience by leveraging a combination of AI and human expertise to create an intelligent assistant. Our customers benefit because it can help them address a wide variety of questions without having to jump through customer service hoops. Ask Avnet can move customers through our various digital properties seamlessly, too. Customers can still enjoy the same experience on each site while Ask Avnet keeps them connected to the resources available within our broader ecosystem. We’re already seeing promising results, such as reduced errors. As Ask Avnet learns over time, it will help us deliver a more scalable, efficient and pleasant customer experience.
More importantly, Ask Avnet is designed to understand the context of our customers’ needs and tailor its responses accordingly. It makes personalisation possible, and this adds significant value that will only grow with time. Because it can contextually understand which stage of the product development journey our customers are in, Ask Avnet can proactively identify information that they might need but are not necessarily on the lookout for, such as product maturity stage or anticipated lead time. It continuously learns from new queries and experiences over time, continually delivering the latest insights as needs, technologies and markets evolve.
“AI does have the capability and potential to help us solve many of the complex problems that plague our society.”
“Ask Avnet” also utilises the know-how of the hackster.io and element14 platforms. How important are those 2016 acquisitions to the “Ask Avnet” objective of shortening time to market for your customers?
W. A.: Ask Avnet is another way for customers to access the wealth of information available through the Avnet ecosystem, of which these communities are one important piece. Ultimately, it extends the mission of our communities while introducing more proactivity and personalisation. When you’re in our communities, you’re on an exploratory journey. When you’re using Ask Avnet, you have an AI-powered guide that brings you the information you need.
By combining Ask Avnet with our online communities, we’re helping shorten our customers’ time to market by making the resources they need to solve their challenges more readily available, easy to access and relevant.
The beta version of “Ask Avnet” went online in July 2017. What has been your customers’ experience with it so far?
W. A.: The customer experience continues to improve because the intelligent assistant learns from every query. Customers are finding greater value in the tool, as both usage and customer satisfaction are increasing. It’s able to hold more detailed and longer conversations as the kinds of questions that Ask Avnet is able to address have expanded significantly. It’s also now able to probe further into queries.
For example, at launch, Ask Avnet would respond to a query with a list of recommendations. Today, Ask Avnet would respond with more relevant questions to help clarify your specs and narrow down options before providing recommendations. It can also include contextually relevant information, such as how-to projects from our communities, price and stock information or lead times. As it learns, Ask Avnet is providing more information and holding more high-quality conversations.
Will there be more projects with Avnet processes using AI in the future?
W. A.: Without a doubt. We’re currently focused on those that create the highest possible value for stakeholders, including both front-office and back-office projects. We’re looking at demand management, supply chain optimisation and are continuing work to enhance our customers’ experience with Ask Avnet and other projects. The technology is really applicable anywhere where there’s an opportunity to improve efficiency, reduce boredom and help our employees create more value.
How will AI influence our lives in the future?
W. A.: Just when you think innovation is waning, a new trend like AI takes hold. It’s clear to me that the economic and social value AI has to offer is just at the beginning of its “S-curve”. Whichever argument sways you, we all can agree that AI is fundamentally going to change the nature of how we live and work. This means that we need to explore new business models, hiring practices and skill sets. Start-ups, makers, tech giants and oldline companies are all in the game. Competition will drive new and innovative AI ideas and applications, and I’m excited to see the next chapter in this story.
From initial sketch to mass production
Avnet supports its customers through every phase of the product life cycle – from initial idea to design, from prototype to production. As one of the world’s largest distributors of electronic components and embedded solutions, the company offers a comprehensive portfolio of design and supply chain services in addition to electronic building blocks. Its acquisition of the online communities Hackster.io and Element14 in 2016 furthermore shows how Avnet is building bridges between the maker and manufacturer. Hackster.io is committed to helping fledgling companies develop hardware for IoT designs. The network engages with some 90 technology partners and includes close to 200,000 engineers, makers and hobbyists. Element14 is an engineering community with more than 430,000 members. By acquiring both platforms, the company is taking an important step towards achieving its goal of helping customers get their ideas first to market. In this respect, Avnet can call on a closely-knit global network of leading technology companies dating back almost a century.
Avnet has its headquarters in Phoenix, Arizona. The company was founded in 1921 by Charles Avnet, starting out as a small retail store in Manhattan specialising in the sale of components for radios. Today Avnet has a workforce of more than 15,000 employees and is represented in 125 countries in North America, Europe and Asia.