NO MICROCHIPS, NO CHRISTMAS
No microchips, no Christmas? What does that mean? Well, I stumbled into a hornet’s nest while researching the global microchip shortage. As an engineering firm, one of the areas we deal in is HVAC systems design. And we’ve had firsthand experience in seeing how the current microchip shortage has affected a contractor’s ability to get mechanical equipment for construction projects. They can’t, at least not easily. So, I planned to write about it.
But as I read article after article, I realized this issue went far beyond the building industry. The global microchip shortage is now affecting my Christmas list, and maybe yours too.
WHY IS THERE A MICROCHIP SHORTAGE?
Why is there a microchip shortage? My question exactly. Although, I’ve heard bits and pieces about the current car shortage, it never occurred to me to ask why. It turns out that the car industry in one of the highest profile victims of the chip shortage, but not the only one. Microchip semiconductors are used to control logic and memory in literally thousands of electronic applications. But last year there was a glitch, COVID-19. And it triggered a bottleneck.
The first and most obvious factor is that in 2020 during the lockdown phase of the pandemic, chip production facilities were shut down. No new production meant reduced stockpiles. But that didn’t stop people from buying electronics. So, the buying frenzy led to the second factor, increased demand.
When folks worldwide found themselves closed off from the world, their dependence on computers, smartphones and gaming devices went through the roof. And with the need for remote learning and telecommuting, the public needed computers and modems. According to WIKIPEDIA by the 4th quarter of 2020, computer sales alone jumped 26% from the previous year. But that’s just one market. It doesn’t take into account the thousands of other products that rely on microchips.
SO JUST MAKE MORE CHIPS
The solution is easy right? Just make more microchips. Well, no it’s not that simple. An average chip the size of a fingernail, contains billions (with a B) of transistors. So, to cram all that into a tiny, wafer-thin integrated circuit takes over 700 steps to create.
Layer upon layer of silica is used to form the chip, and the process takes 12-15 weeks. That’s three to four months for (1) chip. Your computer uses multiple chips. And some car manufacturers need as many as 100 chips in a single vehicle to power doors, windows, transmissions, navigation systems, etc.
If you are looking for more information on the making of microchips, there are hundreds of great articles on the web. But BBC.COM’s “The humble mineral that transformed the world” is a must read.
BUT WHAT DOES THAT HAVE TO DO WITH CHRISTMAS?
No microchips, no Christmas? I wasn’t planning on buying a new car or computer, so that means I’m OK right. No, not necessarily. Look at your shopping list. Are any of the following on it?
- smart phone
- gaming console
- remote control car
- interactive toy
- video doorbell
- robotic vacuum
- electronic toothbrush
- an appliance
- any electronic or smart device
- most any toy that features motion, sound, or light
This is only a sampling of items. Stores have some of these items in stock, but once the stock is depleted it may be harder to get replacements onto the shelves. Also, great deals may be harder to find this year, so if you see a product in stock at a good price, buy it. Waiting until black Friday may be problematic; an earlier start is probably a safer bet this year. But, if all else fails, re-think your list. Make a backup plan and consider going old school, buy a hand powered toothbrush.