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
THE FIXER: Digi-Key customer service representatives like Michelle Barry field customer complaints and get them resolved, usually within a few hours. “If a customer notifies us about a problem with a shipment, say, on a Monday, we’d aim to have the correct parts sent out to them by Tuesday,” she says.

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)

Two Startups Are Bringing Fiber to the Processor

Avicena’s blue microLEDs are the dark horse in a race with Ayar Labs’ laser-based system

4 min read
Diffuse blue light shines from a patterned surface through a ring. A blue cable leads away from it.

Avicena’s microLED chiplets could one day link all the CPUs in a computer cluster together.

Avicena

If a CPU in Seoul sends a byte of data to a processor in Prague, the information covers most of the distance as light, zipping along with no resistance. But put both those processors on the same motherboard, and they’ll need to communicate over energy-sapping copper, which slow the communication speeds possible within computers. Two Silicon Valley startups, Avicena and Ayar Labs, are doing something about that longstanding limit. If they succeed in their attempts to finally bring optical fiber all the way to the processor, it might not just accelerate computing—it might also remake it.

Both companies are developing fiber-connected chiplets, small chips meant to share a high-bandwidth connection with CPUs and other data-hungry silicon in a shared package. They are each ramping up production in 2023, though it may be a couple of years before we see a computer on the market with either product.

Keep Reading ↓Show less