If there’s one good thing to be said about the chip shortage of 2020-2023 (and counting!) it’s that a number of us were forced out of our ruts, and pushed to explore parts that we never would have otherwise. Or maybe it’s just me.
Back in the old times, I used to be a die-hard Atmel AVR fan for small projects, and an STM32 fan for anything larger. And I’ll freely admit, I got stuck in my ways. The incredible abundance of dev boards in the $2 range also helped keep me lazy. I had my thing, and I was fine sticking with it, admittedly due to the low price of those little blue pills.
And then came the drought, and like everyone else, my stockpile of microcontrollers started to dwindle. Replacements at $9 just weren’t an option, so I started looking around. And it’s with no small bit of shame that I’ll admit that I hadn’t been keeping up with the changes as much as I should have. Nowadays, it’s all ESP32s and RP2040s over here, and granted there’s a bit of a price bump, but the performance is there in abundance. But I can’t help feeling like I’m a few years back of the cutting edge.
So when I see work like what [CNLohr] and [Bitluni] are doing with the ultra-cheap CH32V003 microcontrollers, it makes me think that I need to start filling in gaps in my comfortable working-set of chips again. But how the heck am I supposed to keep up? And how do you? It took a global pandemic and silicon drought to force me out of my comfort zone last time. Can the simple allure of dirt-cheap chips get me out? We’ll see!
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Well folks, we made it through another one. While it would be a stretch to call 2022 a good year for those of us in the hacking and making community, the light at the end of the tunnel does seem decidedly brighter now than it did this time 365 days ago. It might even be safe to show some legitimate optimism for the year ahead, but then again I was counting on my Tesla stocks to be a long-term investment, so what the hell do I know about predicting the future.
Thankfully hindsight always affords us a bit of wisdom, deservedly or otherwise. Now that 2022 is officially in the rearview mirror, it’s a good time to look back on the highs (and lows) of the last twelve months. Good or bad, these are the stories that will stick out in our collective minds when we think back on this period of our lives.
Oh sure, some might wish they could take the Men in Black route and forget these last few years ever happened, but it doesn’t work that way. In fact, given the tumultuous times we’re currently living in, it seems more likely than not that at some point we’ll find ourselves having to explain the whole thing to some future generation as they stare up at us wide-eyed around a roaring fire. Though with the way this timeline is going, the source of said fire might be the smoldering remains of an overturned urban assault robot that you just destroyed.
So while it’s still fresh in our minds, and before 2023 has a chance to impose any new disasters on us, let’s take a trip back through some of the biggest stories and themes of the last year.
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.
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.
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. Continue reading “Companies Rumored To Harvest Washing Machines For ICs”→
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.
[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!