Ask Hackaday: How Is The Chip Shortage Affecting You?

Some friends of mine are designing a new board around the STM32F103 microcontroller, the commodity ARM chip that you’ll find in numerous projects and on plenty of development boards. When the time came to order the parts for the prototype, they were surprised to find that the usual stockholders don’t have any of these chips in stock, and more surprisingly, even the Chinese pin-compatible clones couldn’t be found. The astute among you may by now have guessed that the culprit behind such a commodity part’s curious lack of availability lies in the global semiconductor shortage.

A perfect storm of political unintended consequences, climate-related crises throttling Taiwanese chip foundries and shutting down those in the USA, and faulty pandemic recovery planning, has left the chipmakers unable to keep up with the demand from industries on the rebound from their COVID-induced slump. Particularly mentioned in this context is the automotive industry, which has seen plants closing for lack of chips and even models ditching digital dashboards for their analogue predecessors.

Chips on order everywhere on the Mouser website.
Chips on order everywhere on the Mouser website.

The fall-out from all this drama in the world’s car factories has filtered down through all levels that depend upon semiconductors; as the carmakers bag every scrap of chip fab capacity that they can, so in turn have other chip customers scrambled to keep their own supply lines in place. A quick scan for microcontrollers through distributors like Mouser or Digi-Key finds pages and pages of lines on back-order or out of stock, with those lines still available being largely either for niche applications, unusual package options, or from extremely outdated product lines. The chances of scoring your chosen chip seem remote and most designers would probably baulk at trying to redesign around an ancient 8-bit part from the 1990s, so what’s to be done?

Such things typically involve commercially sensitive information so we understand not all readers will be able to respond, but we’d like to ask the question: how has the semiconductor shortage affected you? We’ve heard tales of unusual choices being made to ship a product with any microcontroller that works, of hugely overpowered chips replacing commodity devices, and even of specialist systems-on-chip being drafted in to fill the gap. In a few years maybe we’ll feature a teardown whose author wonders why a Bluetooth SoC is present without using the radio functions and with a 50R resistor replacing the antenna, and we’ll recognise it as a desperate measure from an engineer caught up in 2021’s chip shortage.

So tell us your tales from the coalface in the comments below. Are you that desperate engineer scouring the distributors’ stock lists for any microcontroller you can find, or has your chosen device remained in production? Whatever your experience we’d like to know what the real state of the semiconductor market is, so over to you!

133 thoughts on “Ask Hackaday: How Is The Chip Shortage Affecting You?

  1. Could be a good thing we all don’t get what we want at a drop of a hat. In a way this expands creativity. Also good to make known weakness in supply chain, not that we don’t have history to guide us already, but I suppose new generations need lessons in their own ways of doing things.

    1. True. But as embedded developer I like to expand my creativity all the time, even without world-wide crisis.

      Hovewer I do not like the current situation, when even battery clips (I was forced to used “because of money”) are on backorder. Maybe I am soft but I am thinking about moving from embedded to pure SW developement (of course, keeping HW as hobby).

  2. The phrase ‘chip shortage’ is irksome. It may have started out that way, but panic buying has created an everything shortage.

    I’m working on a lab prototype which thankfully I need only 10 of. It is to be turn-key assembled (toss the design and BOM over the fence to an assembly house, they fab the boards, buy the parts, and assemble it for you.) I substituted over 50% of my BOM line items every day, for four days in a row, trying to keep up with the rate at which Digikey is being sucked dry of not just chips but connectors, crystals, common resistors, ESD diodes, all sorts of things! After four days of treading water I had an orderable BOM; I pulled the trigger, and in the time it took to fill out the order sheet with the assembly house, two more parts had disappeared from all distributor stock.

    Like the broomstick that has its handle replaced, and then its brush replaced – is this even the same design anymore? It has… one or two parts in common with what’s shown on the schematic.

  3. Looking at the Farnell UK website I see some very long delivery dates for some variants of the STM32F103 – many not available until dates in 2022 but a few are as far out as January 2023. This is really, really horrendous.

  4. Is Anyone else sensing a wave of “Device/Model No Longer Supported” on the horizon?
    Going to be lean times for a while.
    So likely not to be any real budget or time allotted for software updates being maintained for all of these unique/bastard/”back corner of the warehouse” parts etc or a myriad of other upcoming rationalizations for orphaning this cluster of desperation that’s coming down the assembly lines.

  5. I think let the good old stock department come alive again. Not JIT, not lean and mean. Simple keeping your own stock. And do not forget, let every part of the world produce their own chips. Asia for Asia, Europe for Europe, America for America. Time have changed, it will never be as before.

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