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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
TIME OUT: A worker takes a breather in one of the many break rooms that dot the Digi-Key warehouse, while a colleague peruses the shelves just beyond.

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.

 

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The First Million-Transistor Chip: the Engineers’ Story

Intel’s i860 RISC chip was a graphics powerhouse

21 min read
Twenty people crowd into a cubicle, the man in the center seated holding a silicon wafer full of chips

Intel's million-transistor chip development team

In San Francisco on Feb. 27, 1989, Intel Corp., Santa Clara, Calif., startled the world of high technology by presenting the first ever 1-million-transistor microprocessor, which was also the company’s first such chip to use a reduced instruction set.

The number of transistors alone marks a huge leap upward: Intel’s previous microprocessor, the 80386, has only 275,000 of them. But this long-deferred move into the booming market in reduced-instruction-set computing (RISC) was more of a shock, in part because it broke with Intel’s tradition of compatibility with earlier processors—and not least because after three well-guarded years in development the chip came as a complete surprise. Now designated the i860, it entered development in 1986 about the same time as the 80486, the yet-to-be-introduced successor to Intel’s highly regarded 80286 and 80386. The two chips have about the same area and use the same 1-micrometer CMOS technology then under development at the company’s systems production and manufacturing plant in Hillsboro, Ore. But with the i860, then code-named the N10, the company planned a revolution.

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