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Hackaday Links: November 6, 2022

Remember the chip shortage? We sure do, mainly because as far as we can tell, it’s still going on, at least judging by the fact that you can’t get a Raspberry Pi for love or money. But that must just be noise, because according to a report in the Straits Times, the chip shortage is not only over, it’s reversed course enough that there’s now a glut of semiconductors out there. The article claims that the root cause of this is slowing demand for products like smartphones, an industry that’s seeing wave after wave of orders to semiconductor manufacturers like TSMC canceled. Chips for PCs are apparently in abundance now too, as the spasm of panic buying machine for remote working during the pandemic winds down. Automakers are still feeling the pinch, though, so much so that Toyota is now shipping only one smart key with new cars, instead of the usual two. So there seems to be some way to go before balance is restored to the market, but whatever — just call us when Amazon no longer has to offer financing on an 8 GB Pi.

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The Chip Shortage Leads To The Strangest Things

The global chip shortage has not made the life of the electronic design engineer an easy one, as products have been designed around whatever parts are available rather than the first choices. This has manifested itself in some unexpected ways, including as [CNX software] investigates, products whose multiple-choice bill of materials has led to mistakes being made in manufacture.

On the face of it, designing a PCB with two sets of footprints to accommodate more than one part choice is a clever move. But as Radxa found out with their Rock 3A single board computer, this could lead to a production mishap as some boards left the production line with a mix-and-match BoM in their USB PD circuitry which left them unable to operate from voltages above 5 V. The board has footprints for both an Injoinic and a WCH part, and the faulty boards appear to have the support components fitted for the other chip to the one on the board.

We’d join [CNX] in congratulating Radxa for coming clean, and we like that one of the options to fix it is to be sent the chip to fit yourself. We’re left rather glad that it wasn’t us on whose watch such a mistake occurred, as from experience we know these things can happen all too easily.

Has the chip shortage led to any similar production mistakes in your life? Let us know in the comments.

Companies Rumored To Harvest Washing Machines For ICs

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.
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Hackaday Links: May 29, 2022

It looks like the ongoing semiconductor shortage isn’t getting any better, and if the recent spate of computer thefts from semi trucks is any indication, it’s only going to get worse. Thieves seem to be targeting the Freightliner Cascadia, probably the most popular heavy freight truck on the road in North America today, with “smash and grab” thefts targeting the CPC4, or Common Powertrain Control module. These modules are sitting ducks — they’re easy to locate and remove, the chip shortage has made legit modules nearly unobtanium from dealers, and the truck won’t run without them. That’s driven the black market price for a CPC up to $8,000 or more, making them a tempting target. And it’s not only individual trucks parked in truck stop lots that are being hit; gangs are breaking into trucking company lots and bricking dozens of trucks in short order. So the supply chain problem which started the semiconductor shortage caused the module shortage, which drives the thieves to steal modules and take trucks off the road, which only worsens the supply chain shortage that started the whole thing. Nice positive feedback loop.

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The module on a green PCB, connected to the Pixhawk controller, powering the servo rail

Anxieties Of Hardware Bringup During Parts Shortage

[Dirksavage88] tells us a story about developing a simple BEC in times of chip shortage. He needed a small 5V/3A regulator board for a servo rail on his drone, and decided to use one of the new integrated-inductor modules from Texas Instruments. Hardly requiring any external parts, such modules are exceptionally nice to use for all your power rail needs, albeit at a slightly increased cost – the downside is that, as the parts shortage hit, most of them have been out of stock. Originally priced at about $7 USD, the asking price for these specific modules, LMZM33603, has climbed as high as $800. Somehow, he obtained a few of these modules nevertheless, and went on designing a board.

It can be daunting to test your very first PCBs when the silicon you’re putting on it is effectively irreplaceable for your purposes. TI is known for their wacky footprints, and this module is no exception – the solder paste application took a bit of time, and seeing small solder balls around the module after reflow didn’t exactly reassure him. Thankfully, when he powered it all up, the module worked wonders, and took its rightfully earned spot in his drone’s servo turret. He says we can expect the next revision of his design in 2024, or whenever it is that the reported 100 week lead time is due. In case some of us could use them, Eagle files are available on GitHub!

Quite a few of us are lucky enough to have enough crucial parts for what we need, but most of us got a good few projects shelved until better times – take this WiFi-enabled wall charger project, for instance. Even bigger projects are suffering, from SmoothieBoard to Raspberry Pi. Just a year ago, we had our readers share their chip shortage stories.

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Hackaday Report: Will 2022 Bring A New Dawn For The Chip Shortage?

As the world begins to slowly pull itself out of the economic effects of the pandemic, there’s one story that has been on our minds for the past couple of years, and it’s probably on yours too. The chip shortage born during those first months of the pandemic has remained with us despite the best efforts of the industry. Last year, pundits were predicting a return to normality in 2022, but will unexpected threats to production such as the war in Ukraine keep us chasing supplies? It’s time to delve into the root of the issue and get to the bottom of it for a Hackaday report.

The Chips Are Down

Empty supermarket shelves in March 2020
Consumers were more interested in toilet paper than chip supply during the lockdown.

Going back to 2020, and as global economies abruptly slowed down in the face of stringent lockdowns it’s clear that both chipmakers and their customers hugely underestimated the effect that the pandemic would have on global demand for chips.

As production capacity was reduced or turned to other products in response to the changed conditions, it was soon obvious that the customers’ hunger for chips had not abated, resulting in a shortfall between supply and demand.

We’ve all experienced the chaos that ensued as the supply of popular varieties dried up almost overnight, and as fresh pandemic waves have broken around the world along with a crop of climate and geopolitical uncertainties it’s left many wondering whether the chip situation will ever be the same again.

Green Shoots In Idaho

An Idaho License plate: "Famous potatoes"
Idaho leads the way in a chip shortage recovery! inkknife_2000, CC BY-SA 2.0

Amidst all that gloom, there are some encouraging green shoots to be seen. While it’s perhaps not quite time to celebrate, there’s a possibility for some cautious optimism. This month brought the hope that Potato Semiconductor might be cutting the sod on a new production capacity for their ultra-fast digital logic in Idaho, and with other manufacturers following suit it could be that we’ll once again have all the chip capacity we can eat.

But the other side of the chip business coin lies with the customer: we all see the chip shortage from our own semi-insider perspective, but have the tastes of the general public returned towards chips? Early signs are that as consumer confidence returns there are encouraging trends in chip consumption taking root, so we’d be inclined to advise our readers to have cautious optimism. If all goes well, you’ll be having your chips by summer.

The prospects for a new dawn in chip production capacity in 2022 look rosy, but there’s a further snag on the horizon courtesy of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Like so many industries in a globalised economy, the chip industry depends heavily on supplies, consumables, and machinery from beyond the borders of wherever the plants themselves may lie.

In the case of Ukraine there’s a particular raw material whose supply has been severely interrupted, and though we hope for a speedy resolution of the conflict and a consequent resumption of production, the knock-on effect on the production of chips in the rest of the world can not be underestimated. Despite the ramp-up in output led by Idaho, the production of chips globally still relies heavily on Ukrainian sunflower oil. There’s a possibility that an acceptable substitute might be found in canola oil, but it will remain to be seen whether the chip-eating consumers will notice the taste difference.

If you would like to help the people of Ukraine in their hour of need, here are some organisations working on the ground to whom you can donate.

Header image: Daniel Kraft, CC BY-SA 3.0.

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Hackaday Links: February 20, 2022

Sounds like somebody had a really bad day at work, as Western Digital reports that “factory contamination” caused a batch of flash memory chips to be spoiled. How much, you ask? Oh, only about 7 billion gigabytes! For those of you fond of SI prefixes, that’s 7 exabytes of storage; to put that into perspective, it’s seven times what Google used for Gmail storage in 2012, and enough to store approximately 1.69 trillion copies of Project Gutenberg’s ASCII King James Version Bible. Very few details were available other than the unspecified contamination of two factories, but this stands poised to cause problems with everything from flash drives to phones to SSDs, and will probably only worsen the ongoing chip shortage. And while we hate to be cynical, it’ll probably be prudent to watch out for any “too good to be true” deals on memory that pop up on eBay and Ali in the coming months.

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