When Chips Are Scarce: Maker Ingenuity in Uncertain Times

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When Chips Are Scarce: Maker Ingenuity in Uncertain Times
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The past few years have been … unprecedented. Supply chain failures manifest themselves visibly around us, from parking lots in Detroit full of cars that can’t be finished for lack of a single part, to immense backlogs of container ships at the Port of Long Beach. From consumers all the way up to foundries, it feels like no part of the electronics supply chain has escaped the impact of material shortages and logistical quandaries.

We reached out to folks in the various strata of the maker community to hear their stories, how they’ve been impacted, and what the future looks like from their vantage point.

KEY SUPPLIERS

Digi-Key Electronics started out as makers themselves, and have grown over the past five decades to become one of the world’s largest distributors of electronic components. Today they supply parts for prototyping and production to everyone from the novice maker to some of the largest engineering companies on the planet.

But even at this level — or perhaps particularly at this level — supply chain issues can hit hard. In the past, the world at large has occasionally disrupted the world of components — the Great Recession of the late 2000s, the odd run on Raspberry Pis or ATmega328 DIPs — but during this latest shortage Digi-Key has been continually unable to attain their desired stock levels for many high-running parts. Not just silicon either, but connectors, and even some passives like SMT capacitors.

Paradoxically these shortages have often resulted in an increase in sales, as board designers over-buy instead of assuming parts will be available for the next re-spin. While the RP2040 chip has gained huge traction with makers, larger and more conservative customers have stuck with, for example, STMicro chips, but from different silicon suppliers. When even those suppliers weren’t able to come through, Digi-Key ran into a unique issue: their systems aren’t built to handle three-digit-month lead times!

Despite the tension between supply and demand, Digi-Key have been able to keep prices relatively stable for customers — it would be easy to tack $10 onto each Raspberry Pi when they do get more in stock, but with an eye on long-term relationships Digi-Key are doing everything in their power to help customers out. Thankfully, however, from their perspective the pinch is starting to plateau — and may slowly improve in 2023. Innovation isn’t going away, nor are the fundamentals of electronics — more fabs will be created, but it takes time for the fruits of their efforts to trickle down the chain.

HERO D’ITALIA

Photo courtesy of Arduino

Even the mighty of the maker macrocosm are unable to avoid the impact of shortages. At their annual celebration in March, Arduino showed off a number of new products and projects, only to disclose uncomfortably that the featured board was out of stock or unavailable.

The company informs us that they’d planned to announce even more products but chose not to, due to their inability to get them produced. Furthermore, they’re reworking some existing products to eliminate dependence on hard-to-find parts.

Consequently, the inability to source parts has caused a sea change in Arduino’s product planning and strategy. Instead of just hiring more hardware engineers, the company has invested in expert analysts to help forecast and meet demand. New boards are being designed to permit easy substitution of parts with similar footprints or even multiple footprints to accommodate availability, so they can easily switch production back to the original/full-featured product should a missing component suddenly become available again.

Since Arduino control their whole ecosystem, part substitutions — like switching a 9-axis IMU to discrete 6- and 3-axis components — can often be made transparently by updating the board definition or library. Sometimes, however, the required changes are more drastic, and necessitate a product variant such as the Portenta Lite, which lacks the NXP security chip found on the original. Fortunately, thanks to their mission as a learning community, Arduino occasionally receives favors from suppliers who would rather see what few chips they can source end up in schools rather than buried in less virtuous applications.

Other than a few advanced processes (for example 8-layer PCBs), most Arduino products are still made in Piedmont, Italy, near their headquarters in Turin. In order to provide the highest level of support for all these variants, Arduino have worked serial numbers into their products, for traceability from PCB to release, as well as making boards easily identifiable visually so that support staff can immediately confirm the specifics from a user-supplied picture. Arduino’s significant investment in automated testing of software and hardware also facilitates hardware variants, since they can ship with confidence that a slight mutation from the original product will still work with all the different libraries and sketches.

Thanks to their adaptations, Arduino have actually increased deliveries compared to pre-pandemic levels. Although Arduino, and even their suppliers, continue to have difficulty forecasting the supply chain, they assure us they’ll keep fighting to bring us the products we want and love. [For an example, check out the brand new Make Your Uno kit.]

PI VERSUS .PY

Adafruit Industries have been so impacted by the chip shortage that they wrote a little jingle and created a web series about it! Having encountered supply issues early on, they were able to quickly pivot to an availability-first design methodology for new products, instead of designing for manufacturing and relying on just-in-time inventory.

Another advantage is Adafruit’s significant investment in Python as a hardware programming language. Not only does their extensive support for CircuitPython make getting into hardware development more accessible, but it also means incredible portability across boards and architectures. With their Blinka library, even single-board computers can get in on the act, with full CircuitPython API support meaning that the same code that runs on your Feather and QT Py can easily move back and forth to Raspberry Pi, BeagleBone, Jetson, and ClockworkPi.

BOARD BIZ BLUES

David Ray (left) and Chris Williamson (right) in front of CCC building. Photo courtesy of David Ray.

David Ray of Cyber City Circuits gives us a fascinating view from another stratum of the shortage. His company in Augusta, Georgia, provides PCB design and prototyping services for small businesses, which gives them unique insight into the challenges faced across a range of projects.

One interesting facet that didn’t come up in other conversations was the prevalence of counterfeiters and scalpers in the supply chain. It turns out that if a hard-to-find microcontroller like an ATmega328 mysteriously becomes available at a single random source, chances are it’s a fake. But not so fake that it’s immediately obvious. Basic functionality like blinking an LED will have parity with the genuine article, but then using the ADCs will reveal that they’re of disastrously low quality, or an attempt to use interrupts will reveal that they simply do not exist.

And it’s not just suppliers who are faking it. Overseas brokers are just as likely to burn customers and come back the next day with a different name and Skype account. If they claim to be able to get that one part that nobody else can — be wary.

As other vendors mentioned, it’s not just components that are more expensive, but basic materials like solder paste, as well as staff, electricity — everything. In addition to scarce SAMD21s and ATmega328s, voltage regulators like the LMR23610 and even proprietary parts like Cinch connectors have caused designs to have to be started from scratch when supplies evaporated. Asked when things will get back to normal, David makes a subtle Deltron 3030 reference: “Crisis precipitates change.”

MAKEY: BIT BY BIT

Diego Fonstad of Lectrify/Imagination Supply Co. makes kits for students K-12 that teach electronics, engineering, and coding (and delightfully, all of them are Lego-compatible!). Lectrify partnered with Make: to create the Makey:bit Adventure Board — a non-rectangular, robot-inspired micro:bit expansion board who’s fun to be with (find it here).

As operations have expanded, Diego has increased his in-house production capabilities in San Francisco, including a Neoden pick-and-place machine and reflow oven to facilitate custom PCB fabrication — technology that would have been prohibitively expensive not long ago. This lets him build small batches just in time versus sending out for thousands of boards at once; it also eliminates the overhead of communication over specs and BOMs, and facilitates short-run experiments and tweaks. Instead of sitting on finished inventory, Diego can stockpile common components and manufacture whatever’s selling. Smaller production runs also open up opportunities like scrounging around for partial reels which can be re-taped and fed to save a few bucks.

In terms of sourcing, it’s not the more complex parts that have been difficult; simple components like SMD ceramic caps have sometimes had 3-month lead times, and a critical voltage divider could only be found on eBay this side of 2025. Even low-tech hardware like nylon screws, and commodities like wood for laser-cut designs, or specific box sizes, have presented challenges. The flexibility afforded by in-house production, however, means that multiple parallel footprints can be developed to fit whichever component is available, and parts don’t need to be committed to boards until the last moment.

On top of all the sourcing issues, tariffs have been another great hurdle, adding a surprise half grand or more to the already high price of parts and shipping. Diego doesn’t see a future where we return to the extreme flexibility we once took for granted; instead we’ll need to plan much further in advance, and when possible, focus on small-batch runs that facilitate flexibility.

KEEP IT SIMPLE, WHIZ KID

Photo by Ben Sklar

For burgeoning maker pro Joey Castillo, the focus is on simplification. Joey’s hardware engineering practice Oddly Specific Objects makes gadgets that explain themselves and how they were made, unlike so many seemingly magic black boxes out there. Joey believes that since these are all devices made by people, they can be understood, and he does an amazing job of helping people to understand, from his detailed process tweets as @josecastillo to his boards’ own silkscreens which contain extensive self-documentation.

Joey’s first two products are the Sensor Watch — a hackable replacement PCB for the venerable Casio F-91W — and the LCD FeatherWing, which lets makers add a watch-inspired LCD to their projects based on the Adafruit Feather ecosystem. But these weren’t his first attempts at creating a product; his SAMD51-based PyCorder sensor gadget was quickly stifled when he found that obtaining more than the 15 SAMDs he’d used for prototyping was not going to be possible until 2023. Until then, Joey had relied on just-in-time ordering, knowing that whatever he desired was just two days away via Digi-Key.

For his Open Book project, Joey has stopped chasing SAMDs and switched to the Raspberry Pi Pico, which can be soldered straight to his updated board thanks to its castellated edges. And instead of worrying about battery charging ICs, he redesigned the Book to use ordinary AAA batteries. In addition to embedding multiple footprints to accommodate equivalent available parts, Joey has begun exploiting every peripheral of his microcontrollers before reaching for a separate dedicated component. Forged in the flames of the pandemic, Oddly Specific Objects now designs their products, like the LCD FeatherWing, with minimization of supply chain impacts in mind. In an uncertain and scarce world, it’s best to keep things simple.

SURVIVAL OF THE FLEXIBLE

Predicting the future was never easy, but the challenges of recent years have made even reasoning about tomorrow impossible at times. The overarching sentiment of the folks we spoke to was that nobody has a firm grasp on what the future may hold, and the best approach is to adapt within the parameters that you can control and bend with the changing winds. 

PREDICTIONS: WHEN WILL THINGS BE BACK TO NORMAL?

Kevin Walseth, Digi-Key
Technology’s not changing — a new car has over 10,000 capacitors, and that’s just cars! [We’re hearing predictions of a] slow ramp up in 2023, then a slow decline in lead times.

Alessandro Ranellucci, Arduino
Even suppliers seem to have trouble forecasting. [Arduino is] going to continue to fight!

Phillip Torrone, Adafruit
We’ve been preparing for all this, at least in the ways one can — we’re now “designing for purchasing” versus “designing for manufacturing” and/or “just-in-time inventory.”

David Ray, Cyber City Circuits
Crisis precipitates change. Lots of small companies [will] get bought up … things we like get deprecated and not reissued … [we] don’t know what normal is anymore!

Diego Fonstad, Lectrify/Imagination Supply Co.
I think it’s kind of like “When is Covid going away?” I don’t think it’s ever going back to normal; I hate [the phrase] “new normal” but the extreme flexibility we were used to [is past] — we’ll have to do more planning, be more flexible. It’s going to be more local.

Joey Castillo, Oddly Specific Objects
[I’m] adapting the way I work and design things [and] will probably keep that mindset. Simplify! Simplify!! Make it as easy on yourself as you can.

Discuss this article with the rest of the community on our Discord server!
Tagged

David bought his first Arduino in 2007 as part of a Roomba hacking project. Since then, he has been obsessed with writing code that you can touch. David fell in love with the original Pebble smartwatch, and even more so with its successor, which allowed him to combine the beloved wearable with his passion for hardware hacking via its smartstrap functionality. Unable to part with his smartwatch sweetheart, David wrote a love letter to the Pebble community, which blossomed into Rebble, the service that keeps Pebbles ticking today, despite the company's demise in 2016. When he's not hacking on wearables, David can probably be found building a companion bot, experimenting with machine learning, growing his ever-increasing collection of dev boards, or hacking on DOS-based palmtops from the 90s.

Find David on Mastodon at @ishotjr@chaos.social and to a far lesser extent on Twitter at @IShJR.

View more articles by David Groom

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