Embracing innovation & supporting education key to maintaining success

Author : Pete Malpas | Managing Director, Northern Europe | RS Components

01 June 2019

2019 BrightSparks award winners with journalist & broadcaster, Steph McGovern
2019 BrightSparks award winners with journalist & broadcaster, Steph McGovern

A business with an 80-year+ heritage, RS Components has become a ‘household name’ in electronics distribution, surviving & standing the test of time by reinventing itself to cater for an ever-evolving customer base in an era of advancing technology.

This article was originally featured in EPDT's 1H 2019 Electronics Distribution supplement, included in the June 2019 issue of EPDT magazine [read the digital issue]. Sign up to receive your own copy each month.

But it hasn’t all been plain sailing, and the business has had to fight hard to keep a foothold in the market through competitive and challenging times – especially after losing its way a little at the turn of the century. Pete Malpas, Managing Director for Northern Europe at RS Components tells us more…

The arrival in 2015 of Lindsley Ruth, Chief Executive of parent company, Electrocomponents, and his implementation of a turnaround plan, has put RS back on track – and the firm has made some momentous leaps in recent years across a number of areas. In 2018, Pete Malpas took the helm as Managing Director of Northern Europe at RS Components, taking over from Mike England, now EMEA President, who has successfully implemented a five-year strategic plan – at the heart of which is significant investment in employees, value-added services for customers, technology and innovation, and inspiring tomorrow’s engineers.

Here, Pete outlines what underpins these successes, and the importance of never standing still in an ever-evolving world...

RS Titan II innovation truck
RS Titan II innovation truck

With 2018 proving to be a great year for RS, how will you build on this in 2019?

Last year was indeed great for RS and we are ahead of the five-year strategic plan, which is positive. A major focus for us in 2019 will be the ongoing development of our value-added services proposition, to deliver even more value for our customers. We’re a market leader in the UK, but we can’t afford to stand still – there’s a huge opportunity for growth in this space. The value-added services we’re offering are key to an evolving market and are our differentiator: proof that we’re more than just a distributor of products – we’re a digitally-powered provider of complete end-to-end services and solutions.

How has RS embraced technology and innovation?

We’re a global player operating within the multi-channel distribution space, so technology and innovation have to be the main drivers of our business. Technology is engulfing our whole world, and in the industry in which we operate, technology is key to the future. We have to innovate and disrupt ourselves – if we don’t someone else will. It’s critical for businesses to identify disruptions and stay ahead of the curve, so we continually invest in technology to enable us to add value for customers. The digital world moves so fast, and there’s so much more we can do around customer experience, continuing to broaden our product lines and bring in more value-added services for our customers.

Many e-commerce players believe retail giants like Amazon are a threat to businesses such as ours, but instead, we must take inspiration from them. Just as Amazon was once simply a book distributor, but has evolved into a whole new entity, RS was once simply an electronics catalogue business that has become much more.

Pete Malpas, Managing Director for Northern Europe at RS Components
Pete Malpas, Managing Director for Northern Europe at RS Components

What are the main challenges facing the UK technology and engineering space – and how can RS overcome these?

There are some key challenges facing us, and the market as a whole, that we must work together to address. The main one is the STEM skills challenge – and inspiring talent. It’s an ongoing issue on which light has been thrown in recent years, with efforts stepped up to tackle it, but this really needs to be accelerated if we’re to avoid a major skills shortage that will hinder our future economic growth – it really is that simple.

As a business, it’s an area we’ve been passionate about for years, and have implemented and participated in a variety of initiatives to further the promotion of STEM subjects, and inspire current and future engineers. Last year, we partnered with The Year of Engineering (YoE) campaign – which aims to help address the significant engineering skills shortage in the UK. We took our Titan II innovation truck, featuring numerous technologies used by engineers across the industry, including the RS DesignSpark platform, Raspberry Pi, 3D printing, robotics, Internet of Things, virtual reality and augmented reality, to YoE events to help inspire the next generation of engineers. As well as attending YoE events, Titan II continued to tour other educational establishments and events – such as the Big Bang Fair and New Scientist Live – throughout last year, to raise awareness of STEM subjects and provide inspiration.

We also held a STEM Ambassador recruitment day for our employees nationwide in 2018, where we grew the ambassador number within the organisation from 40 to 80 on the day –  and we now have in excess of 100 signed up to the programme. STEM Ambassadors are volunteers from a wide range of science, technology, engineering and mathematics-related jobs and disciplines across the UK, who offer their time and enthusiasm to help bring the subjects to life to inspire young people, and provide an important and free-of-charge resource for teachers.

Our involvement with the BrightSparks awards programme – which aims to both recognise young engineering talent and inspire the next generation still in school – highlights our support for current young engineers. We provide scale-ups at the innovation hubs with equipment and expertise, and access to DesignSpark resources, technical tools and community support to assist in the engineering design process.

For the inspired: Ambionics prosthetic arm, designed by Ben Ryan
For the inspired: Ambionics prosthetic arm, designed by Ben Ryan

And for true inspiration, our ‘for the inspired’ campaign last year highlighted the art of the possible, showcasing the work achieved by individual engineers, using the products we distribute. These included: Ben Ryan of Ambionics, who made his small child a prosthetic arm (and who we are now sponsoring to develop the technology further); Team HYPED at the University of Edinburgh, trying to revolutionise mass transit; and Richard Browning, who has made a jet-powered ‘rocketman’ suit.

Can RS demonstrate tangible impact from efforts to inspire tomorrow’s engineers?

We launched our STEM education strategy  at the end of 2017, and have been keen to monitor the results and impact of the investment we’ve made, to ascertain whether there has been a positive effect in engaging potential future engineers.

Our impact report, created earlier this year, highlighted a number of successes in 2018, including the fact that 35,000 under 18s boarded the RS Titan II truck, 47,000 young people engaged with RS and its educational partners, and most notably, there has been a momentum shift with improving perceptions surrounding engineering. More than half of 11-16 year-olds would now consider a career in engineering; 96% of teachers would recommend it as a career option to their pupils; and the 2015/16 academic year saw a 5% growth in engineering student applications at Higher Education level. We can’t change the world overnight, but our actions now will make a difference in the future – that’s something all players in the market have to bear in mind.

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