The December 2022 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

Slideshow: A Day in the Life of Digi-Key

With a million products in its catalog, the global electronics distributor caters to hobbyists, design engineers, and manufacturers alike

1 min read
Slideshow: A Day in the Life of Digi-Key
Photo: Gregg Segal

Photo: Gregg Segal
RAPID FIRE: A staff of 2600 keeps Digi-Key’s facility in Thief River Falls, Minn., operating 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Within minutes of receiving an order, human “pickers” locate the desired parts and send them along via conveyor belt for packing. A recent expansion, including 38 new pick stations, 26 new pack stations, and 2600 additional meters of conveyer belt, means the facility can now process 24 000 orders a day, or one every 3.6 seconds.

In the 42 years since its founding, Digi-Key Corp. has grown—and grown—into one of the world’s largest electronic-component distributors. Its online catalog features nearly a million parts and products. Last year it sold US $1.6 billion worth of merchandise to more than half a million customers in 170 countries. And the vast majority of Digi-Key’s offerings are kept in stock, available for immediate shipping, in a single place: the company’s 74 000-square-meter warehouse.

That enormous warehouse sits on the southwestern edge of the tiny town of Thief River Falls, Minnesota (population 8661). The nearest city is Grand Forks, N.D., hardly a metropolis. The warehouse operates around the clock, 365 days a year, with the result that any order placed by 8 p.m. local time gets shipped out the same day.

Digi-Key, like its archrival Mouser Electronics, caters to both corporate clients and hobbyists. The company will gladly sell you a Xilinx Virtex-7 field-programmable gate array for $39 452.40, but it will also sell you a single 10-cent through-hole resistor.

And then there’s the customer service. When you call Digi-Key’s toll-free number, an actual person answers, usually within 5 seconds. From there, you’ll be guided expertly, even if you have no idea what you need, even if all you’re getting is that 10-cent resistor, even if you speak Chinese, Hindi, or Portuguese. In an age of impersonal e-commerce, of voice mail that never gets returned, of languishing on hold, the experience of being a Digi-Key customer can seem almost surreal.

About the Photographer

Gregg Segal, an award-winning photographer based in the Los Angeles area, specializes in what he calls the environmental portrait: photographs taken “in a place that tells something about the person.” Segal’s other work for IEEE Spectrum includes portraits of SpaceX engineer Brandon Pearce and of computer-savvy bonobo apes.

 

The Conversation (0)

The Transistor at 75

The past, present, and future of the modern world’s most important invention

1 min read
A photo of a birthday cake with 75 written on it.
Lisa Sheehan
LightGreen

Seventy-five years is a long time. It’s so long that most of us don’t remember a time before the transistor, and long enough for many engineers to have devoted entire careers to its use and development. In honor of this most important of technological achievements, this issue’s package of articles explores the transistor’s historical journey and potential future.

Keep Reading ↓Show less