Wired and SCMP are reporting on interesting trivia from the realm of chip shortages. Apparently, some large conglomerate out there is buying new washing machines and scavenging the chips they can’t obtain otherwise. My imagination pictures skilled engineers in a production room, heavy-duty electric screwdrivers and desoldering toolkits on the floor next to them, and a half-torn-down washing machine about to reveal its control board with an STM32 right in the middle. This might not be the most skilled job, but it’s a change of pace, and hey, as long as the rate stays the same?
Whichever company is doing this, they’re in a conundrum for sure. One of the articles offers an example of a $350,000 spectrometer manufacturing being stalled by lack of a $0.50 part – while this feels exaggerated, it’s within the realm of possibility. For car manufacturers, the difference isn’t as dire, but still severe enough, and not meeting the production targets has ramifications other than the financial ones. It might indeed make sense to buy a $150 washing machine in order to finally be able to move a $30,000 car off the assembly line.
Shipping Anyway – Barely
Companies have devised a slew of tricks to keep getting product out of the door. From good old code optimizations, to shipping cars with features partially excluded, and of course, buying severely marked up chips even if their origin is shady. At least, if your car doesn’t come with some rudimentary feature, there might’ve been a good reason for it – beats the Features As A Service thing. Nevertheless, even entities like Volkswagen, Tesla and Toyota are sustaining casualties, not meeting their targets, with all that entails financially and PR-wise.
There’s always high hopes about solving IC shortage problems. Chips appear and disappear, toolkits get made, cool new substitute parts get found. However, if you’re managing a company’s production process, at some point you’ll have to break out of the limbo between “this might be over tomorrow” and “we aren’t doing enough yet”. You either reach for desperate measures, or you might find yourself out of business.
You’d think the situation would’ve gotten sorted out by now – it did start almost two years ago already, after all! Of course, there’s always new complications piling on. The war being waged on Ukraine by Russia has interrupted some supply chains, making select products more expensive. There’s periodic COVID-19 lockdowns in China, an earthquake has brought some Japanese factories to a halt in March, and TSMC’s capacity is sold out through 2023 too – not leaving much hope for those not lucky enough to be in the schedule.
The Opposite Of Recycling
This situation reminds me of last year’s Remoticon presentation, by [Maurits Fennits] from [Unbinare] – creating a toolkit for reverse-engineering in order to be able to reuse parts, except without the benefit of being able to obtain proprietary information through business relationships. Unbinare’s toolkit is impressive and I hope that at least some of the tools are being put to good use when it comes to chip shortage problem solutions.
On the other hand, tearing apart brand new equipment for a single chip creates more e-waste, even when it makes financial sense. We can’t realistically expect that the company in question is going to restore these washing machines back to working condition and release them back into the market; the whole disassembly and desoldering operation is probably quite destructive, too.
Surely, the washing machine thing can’t be common occurrence, and there’s no indication that it’s anything but an isolated incident. However, if such methods are used, I’d hope they at least cause some reflection. One would dream that Apple, for instance, is being forced to face its affinity towards shredding the devices they’re meant to recycle – as opposed to actually meaningful forms of recycling. I’m afraid this isn’t about to happen.
We’ve torn down many a prototype in the past year or two, from STM32- to Raspberry Pi-containing ones. Do tell us about your own “salvaging parts to bring new projects to life” journeys of recent times!