Tales From The Global Chip Shortage: Smoothieboard

The semiconductor shortage sparked by the pandemic is showing no signs of slowing down. Although auto manufacturers were some of the first affected, the shortage has now spread and is impacting all sorts of projects, including the Smoothieboard open-source CNC controllers.

[Chris Cecil] walks through the production woes they’ve had over the last few months. It began this spring with a batch of the V1.1 boards. The prices of some of their chips started jumping, and then they were informed that the microcontroller that serves as the brains of the Smoothieboard was only available for five times the old price. In the end, they placed a smaller order, and V1.1 Smoothieboards will likely be scarce until the microcontroller’s price returns to normal.

Getting V2 of the boards into production has been even more difficult. Just weeks before the final prototype, it was discovered that the LPC4330 microcontroller the V2 was built around was also sold out worldwide. With the shortage in mind, a hole was left in the layout of the final version of V2 so that they could finish the design around whatever microcontroller they were able to get. In the end, they were able to lock down a supply of STM32H745 controllers, which are actually substantially more capable than the original device.

If you’re interested in the origins of the chip shortage, this article from January is a good place to start. This isn’t the first time parts shortages have wreaked havoc on the world of electronics—does anyone remember the global resistor shortage of ’18?

JIT Vs. AM: Is Additive Manufacturing The Cure To Fragile Supply Chains?

As fascinating and frustrating as it was to watch the recent Suez canal debacle, we did so knowing that the fallout from it and the analysis of its impact would be far more interesting. Which is why this piece on the potential of additive manufacturing to mitigate supply chain risks caught our eye.

We have to admit that a first glance at the article, by [Davide Sher], tripped our nonsense detector pretty hard. After all, the piece appeared in 3D Printing Media Network, a trade publication that has a vested interest in boosting the additive manufacturing (AM) industry. We were also pretty convinced going in that, while 3D-printing is innovative and powerful, even using industrial printers it wouldn’t be able to scale up enough for print parts in the volumes needed for modern consumer products. How long would it take for even a factory full of 3D-printers to fill a container with parts that can be injection molded in their millions in China?

But as we read on, a lot of what [Davide] says makes sense. A container full of parts that doesn’t arrive exactly when they’re needed may as well never have been made, while parts that are either made on the factory floor using AM methods, or produced locally using a contract AM provider, could be worth their weight in gold. And he aptly points out the differences between this vision of on-demand manufacturing and today’s default of just-in-time manufacturing, which is extremely dependent on supply lines that we now know can be extremely fragile.

So, color us convinced, or at least persuaded. It will certainly be a while before all the economic fallout of the Suez blockage settles, and it’ll probably longer before we actually see changes meant to address the problems it revealed. But we would be surprised if this isn’t seen as an opportunity to retool some processes that have become so optimized that a gust of wind could take them down.

Fire At Renesas Plant Fuels Chip Supply Woes

The small city of Naka (pop. 53K), a two-hour train ride from Tokyo on the eastern coast of Japan, was thrust into the international spotlight in the early dawn of Friday morning. A fire broke out among electroplating equipment in Renesas’s 300 nm N3 fabrication facility. It was extinguished before breakfast time, and fortunately nobody was injured nor were there any toxic chemical leaks. Only six hundred square meters on the first floor of the plant was damaged, but the entire building has to be closed for repairs. It will take approximately one month to restore normal operations, and CEO Hidetoshi Shibata is “concerned that there will be a massive impact on chip supplies”.

Renesas Naka Plant Location

In a press conference on Sunday afternoon, Renesas reports that the source of the fire has been determined, but the details are still unclear:

The casing of the equipment and the plating tank have relatively low resistance to heat, and the equipment ignited due to overcurrent. However, the cause of the overcurrent and the reason for the ignition is currently being investigated.

Semiconductors are already in short supply, as we reported back in January, forcing slowdowns at many auto manufacturers. The Naka plant primarily makes automotive semiconductors, worsening an already stressed supply chain. While the news focuses on the automotive sector, this shortage spills over into many other industries as well.

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Empty Parking Lot

Pandemic Chip Shortages Are Shutting Down Automotive Production

Once upon a time, the automobile was a mostly mechanical beast, but no longer. Advanced electronics have weaved their way into the modern car, from engine to infotainment and climate control to the buttons now sprinkled throughout the passenger cabin. The gains in amenity and efficiency can’t be sniffed at, but it leaves manufacturers reliant on semiconductor suppliers to get cars out the door. Over the past year, it’s become much more complicated — with many automakers having to slow production in the face of integrated circuit shortages that can be traced back to Spring of 2020. Continue reading “Pandemic Chip Shortages Are Shutting Down Automotive Production”

Peeking Inside A VW Gearbox Reveals Die Casting Truths

Recently, I was offered a 1997 Volkswagen Golf for the low, low price of free — assuming I could haul it away, as it suffered from a thoroughly borked automatic transmission. Being incapable of saying no to such an opportunity, I set about trailering the poor convertible home and immediately tore into the mechanicals to see what was wrong.

Alas, I have thus far failed to resurrect the beast from Wolfsburg, but while I was wrist deep in transmission fluid, I spotted something that caught my eye. Come along for a look at the nitty-gritty of transmission manufacturing!

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Quality Control, Done Anywhere

Modern society has brought us all kinds of wonders, including rapid intercontinental travel, easy information access, and decreased costs for most consumer goods thanks to numerous supply chains. When those supply chains break down as a result of a natural disaster or other emergency, however, the disaster’s effects can be compounded without access to necessary supplies. That’s the focus of Field Ready, a nonprofit that sets up small-scale manufacturing in places without access to supply chains, or whose access has been recently disrupted.

As part of this year’s Hackaday Prize, a each of our four nonprofit partners outline specific needs that became the targets of a design and build challenge. Field Ready was one of those nonprofits, and for the challenge they focused on quality control for their distributed manufacturing system. We took a look at Field Ready back in June to explore some of the unique challenges associated with their work, which included customers potentially not knowing that a product they procured came from Field Ready in the first place, leading to very little feedback on the performance of the products and nowhere to turn when replacements are needed.

The challenge was met by a dream team whose members each received a $6,000 microgrant to work full time on the project. The’ve just made their report on an easier way of tracking all of the products produced, and identifying them even for those not in the organization. As a result, Field Ready has a much improved manufacturing and supply process which allows them to gather more data and get better feedback from users of their equipment. Join us after the break for a closer look at the system and to watch the team’s presentation video.

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State Of The Art For Nixies Gets A Boost From Dalibor Farny’s Supersize Prototype

Never one to pass up on a challenge, artisanal Nixie tube maker [Dalibor Farný] has been undertaking what he calls “Project H”, an enormous array of 121 Nixie tubes for an unnamed client. What’s so special about that? Did we mention that each Nixie is about the size of a sandwich plate?

Actually, we did, back in May when we first noted Project H in our weekly links roundup. At that time [Dalibor] had only just accepted the project, knowing that it would require inventing everything about these outsized Nixies from scratch. At 150 mm in diameter, these will be the largest Nixies ever made. The design of the tube is evocative of the old iconoscope tubes from early television history, or perhaps the CRT from an old oscilloscope.

Since May, [Dalibor] has done most of the design work and worked out the bugs in a lot of the internal components. But as the video below shows, he still has some way to go. Everything about his normal construction process had to be scaled up, so many steps, like the chemical treatment of the anode cup, are somewhat awkward. He also discovered that mounting holes in the cathodes were not the correct diameter, requiring some clench-worthy manual corrections. The work at the glassblower’s lathe was as nerve wracking as it was fascinating; every step of the build appears fraught with some kind of peril.

Sadly, this prototype failed to come together — a crack developed in the glass face of the tube. But ever the pro, [Dalibor] took it in stride and will learn from this attempt. Given that he’s reduced the art of the Nixie to practice, we’re confident these big tubes will come together eventually.

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