How the world’s shortage of semiconductors affects your embedded projects

Marketing ScreamingBox, Thursday, June 21, 2021

By: Balazs Beregnyei

The global pandemic has impacted everyone’s lives in different ways. First, we had a toilet paper shortage, followed by a shortage of dry goods (sugar and flour), but then people learned what to do, how to adapt, and what to expect. The majority of workplaces and schools switched to remote and virtual, so people scrambled to buy all the laptops, cheap desktop computers, and USB webcams available. The cryptocurrency market also became very active, therefore you can’t buy a good video card if you are not ready to pay five times the pre-pandemic price. Now it seems we have shortages of various types of semiconductors, too. Unfortunately, there aren’t any good short term solutions in many industrial areas, such as car manufacturing. If you are working on an embedded project that is in the prototyping phase, it isn’t impossible, but it is tricky and complicates things a bit. Let’s dive in and see what you can do to move the project along.

The good news is that you can order your Printed Circuit Boards with almost every electronic part assembled. I just received a package from a Chinese manufacturer a week ago. There wasn’t a significant delay, the whole supply chain seems to be working almost as well as it did before the pandemic. On the other hand, some key parts were missing: there was no microcontroller or SDRAM and one of the power supply chips was missing. There were, however, 100 other parts, such as resistors, capacitors, and transistors already assembled, so the device was almost ready to use.

Implementing a few new habits can help get you what you need. In the past, it was customary to order the key electronic parts in advance, a few months before even starting a project. For me, I’d buy the parts in anticipation because I was so excited to start the project: buying the microcontrollers, memory chips, LCD’s, and connectors. It wasn’t only to be prepared and ready for the project, but also a motivational technique. When seeing the parts lying around it helps to signal your brain to get started on the project and deliver it quickly – not to forget. Most engineers, of course, have a bunch of unused parts shuffling around in a drawer somewhere and this often saves a project because if you are missing a part you might be lucky and it is in the back of the drawer somewhere. Today though, it is much more important to plan ahead. If you plan to start a new project, the first thing you should immediately do is buy any kind of microcontroller you can find, which you think you might need later for the project. So, go ahead and login to your favorite supplier and see what is in stock and can be bought immediately.

Now, what if you managed to design, manufacture, and test your first prototype and it seems to be working? The pandemic is still here and probably won’t be disappearing anytime soon, the shortage isn’t over either, and you can’t find your actual microcontroller anywhere any more. So what should you do? Check those popular electronic suppliers like Mouser and Digikey and see what they have in stock. What you might come across is something like this: there is nothing currently in stock, but there are a few thousand of your microcontrollers on backorder, and you can buy them in March 2022, for example. The problem is this might not help you now because you have to move forward on your second prototype. There are some minor hardware bugs you need to fix now and there are some new mechanical requirements to fit the device in the new enclosure. You need to modify and re-shape your PCB a little bit and you need to get all the necessary electronic parts. Let’s talk about a few of those options.

SMD rework

In case the expected quantity of your second prototype is not better than the first prototype, you can reuse all the parts, so it’s not a total waste. You might need a good SMD rework station, but in general, this is the easiest way. You just drop the parts from the old board and solder them to the new board.

Buy it with a side dish

Sometimes you can’t buy the chip itself, but you can buy a cheap board with your favorite chip assembled. It is a reasonable solution if you have to produce a lot more second prototypes than first prototypes, but it isn’t at the mass production phase yet. Let’s say, for example, the first prototype worked pretty well, and you want to involve 50-100 test users to get enough feedback to validate and finalize the design. For example, your preferred microcontroller costs $3 and it is out of stock, but you can buy a development board for $25. It isn’t that much of an additional cost, it does need extra handwork, but it keeps your project moving forward.

Buy it from alternative sellers

Use all your social network connections you have worked so hard at building. You might have a colleague who has the extra parts lying around in that extra parts drawer somewhere. Or there is a company that you have never heard of before that has a few hundred pieces in stock.

There are companies out there that are buying up the remaining stock in order to sell it later for added profit. Be careful though, sometimes all you get is some fake chips you can’t use. 

Different package

A typical microcontroller family has hundreds of members with different types of peripherals and packages. There is a chance that a bigger version of your microcontroller is available. Sometimes all the TQFP packages are sold out, but you can order the BGA version of the same chip. Of course, it needs a modified PCB, but this is the cost of doing business.

Different architecture

If any of my previous suggestions don’t work, you may need to choose a totally different microcontroller. Not only will you redesign your PCB, but also the firmware will need to be modified a bit. All the architecture dependent pieces of the firmware will need to be reviewed and rewritten. A good quality embedded firmware is portable and designed to run and tested on a PC too, it has the architecture dependent parts separated, but the change of the architecture could be painful.

You may ask, why would we even consider starting a new embedded project in these circumstances? The project could be more complicated and more expensive than usual, and random events could force us to redesign it multiple times. Should we just wait until the situation becomes predictable? The answer is no, actually it is the other way around. People are learning new skills while their workload is lighterl. The global pandemic has forced us inside with less social interaction and we can use this situation to prepare for life returning to normal. Hopefully, the global shortage will be over sooner rather than later. 

Would you waste the remaining time not preparing for the post pandemic big boom? Of course not. If you have any intention to start an embedded project in the future, now is a perfect time to do it. During the proof of concept phase, you won’t use significant material resources, but you can spend this transition time creating something valuable. Let’s get your idea up and running and create a prototype product that you can hold in your hands!

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