Stuck at home, engineers binge on technical content

Binge TV watching bowl of popcorn
In order to stay up on new technologies and trends and learn new skills, engineers are consuming more on technical content and online training and buying components for home projects. (Renato Arap/E+/Getty)

Already a massive generator of traffic to its site, electronics distributor Digi-Key saw a 30% increase month-to-month in page views since COVID-19 stay-at-home mandates went into effect in March. Visitors increased across the board to resources like datasheets, videos, tools such as conversion calculators, as well as to Digi-Key’s Maker.io site, which aggregates projects and information from top content providers in a single location.

“The spike in traffic clearly shows a renewed quest for knowledge,” said David Sandys, director of business ecosystem development for Digi-Key.

Similarly, National Instruments, a provider of automated test equipment and virtual instrumental software, saw a significant increase in visitors to its online training modules. The company waived fees—which range from $450 to $675 per year--to its entire online course catalog in mid-March. The response was so great that NI recently extended free access through May 31, 2020.

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“We had a 12X increase in visitors during the last week in March, as compared to a year ago,” said Paul Hofstadler, VP Global Services, National Instruments.  “Not only did those engineers and scientists complete online learning modules, but also they went on to obtain digital learning credentials or ‘badges,’ at three times the number compared to historical data.”

Hofstadler noted that a large percentage –some 50%--of the course takers are located in the EMEIA region, while 30% reside in the Americas, and 20% in APAC.

Life-long learning nothing new

Since a big part of their job is to stay on top of new technologies and trends and lear new skills--and with new product introductions happening at an explosive rate--engineers have always been rabid seekers and consumers of information. The restrictions imposed by COVID-19 have only amplified that behavior—pushing it to a binge-like frenzy--as evidenced by the preliminary results of a survey by FierceElectronics.   

When asked what plans they had in order to get information and stay up-to-date on new technologies, two thirds reported that they planned to spend more time accessing information online. Over 50% said they planned to participate in more online training and events.

COVID-19: The quandary of teaching a hands-on lab from afar

To meet the information needs of customers during this stay-at-home period, Digi-Key has launched a new webpage, which hosts links to books, blogs, projects, courses, kits, videos and coding examples. “The content was curated based on the specific needs that engineers have now,” said Sandys.

“We also have a new [email protected] newsletter that highlights specific products, trainings and other content resources to help keep them sharp or expand their knowledge. The newsletter is divided into sections for both [email protected] and [email protected] based on the recipients interests and skill level,” he added.

Planned before the pandemic hit, NI at the end of April announced the release of free editions of its flagship software, LabVIEW, for personal use. Aimed at hobbyists and K-12 students, the LabVIEW Community editions offer the same features as the professional version of the popular systems engineering software including:

  • The LabVIEW NXG Web Module to help users with little to no web development skills create web applications
  • An updated version of the LINX toolkit to help engineering hobbyists interface and/or deploy LabVIEWapplications to popular maker computing targets like Arduino, Raspberry Pi and BeagleBoards

A breakdown of usage guidelines can also be found here. “As long as it's not used for work purposes, an engineer doesn’t need a license to use." said Daniel Parrott, Product Marketing Manager, LabVIEW at NI. 

Buying components for projects up as well

Beyond the quest for more information, Digi-Key also is seeing an increase in both sales of development kits and small order quantities. Sandys said that a better indicator of the impact of COVID-19 is the increase in the number of customers, because individuals whose purchases are normally related to their companies are now putting in orders for their stay at home activities.

“In general, when we look at April 2020 vs April of 2019 we see sales globally are basically on par, but the customer count is up. This means while the average sales per customer is down, it is because individuals are buying components for their own usage or for prototyping,” said Sandys.  

The 30% increase in traffic to Maker.io bears that out, she said, as the site was creaed to engage with both traditional makers and makers with commercial aspirations/startups via a more project related approach. “On the site visitors will find tools to help them take their concepts and thoughts from ideation to functional prototype all the way through to manufactured product. Where Digikey.com is product focused, Maker.io allows us to aggregate projects and information from top content providers in a single location,” Sandys added.

But not all engineers are joining the binge-fest, as one survey respondent noted: “No plans to get more info, I don't care, there is too much information coming at me already.”

And in a recent article for FierceElectronics, embedded developer Ken Wada had two words of advice for engineers to get away from what they are doing anyway as part of their jobs: Start cooking!

RELATED: From bits and bytes to beets, a guide to staying busy

COVID-19: The quandary of teaching a hands-on lab from afar

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