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Semiconductor Shortage and Business Threat

I’ve written several times about the global semiconductor shortage and the difficulty of getting parts. This has been a problem for everyone since COVID hit, but a year ago I’d hoped things would be improving by fall 2022. Unfortunately it’s worse than ever. It’s now looking increasingly likely that I’ll need to cease most production sometime in 2023, sell off the remaining stock of hardware, shut down the BMOW business, and ride off into the sunset to do something else.

Is it really that bad? In the pre-COVID days, I could just buy thousands of parts from Digikey or Mouser whenever I needed them. More recently I’ve had to place orders for chips 3-4 months in advance, which requires more upfront planning but is still doable. But now several key chips for Floppy Emu and Yellowstone just aren’t available with any realistic lead-time. Suppliers are quoting dates in 2024, or just declining to give any dates at all. Yellowstone has been in this zone for a while, but now Floppy Emu is falling into the same trouble, and without those two products I really don’t have a business.

Yellowstone uses a Lattice FPGA that was widely available when I designed the board, but has since become unobtanium. Officially they’re still quoting delivery dates in late 2023, but the dates keep moving back. I strongly suspect that the dates are based on nothing more than hopes and prayers. A few days ago I received an unexpected email from Mouser, telling me that the FPGA was now back in stock and available to order. But I checked the site, and it still showed zero stock and a year+ lead time. A Mouser rep confirmed this was an error. Ugh.

For the Floppy Emu, microcontrollers from Atmel (now Microchip) have been harder and harder to find. But at least the lead times are somewhat manageable, currently about 4 months, and so far they seem to be hitting those dates. The biggest challenge is the CPLD from Xilinx (now AMD), which isn’t available from any official supplier and where reliable delivery dates are scarce. I had some Xilinx parts on order from Mouser with an expected delivery date of January 2023, then I received notice today that the delivery date has been pushed out to January 2024. Say what?

Some of these parts may be available from third-party suppliers, but I hate dealing with these guys. The whole surplus parts industry seems built on a foundation of deception and lies. Some of them will give an upfront quote if you ask nicely, but many use a retroactive repricing approach that drives me bananas. They might advertise having 37957 parts in stock with a price of $6.02 each, but the fine print says “Due to the shortage of the global supplier, some products may rise in price and out of stock. We will manually confirm after placing the order.” So I place an order and pay for it, then 24 hours I get an email saying sorry we only have 233 parts and the price is $25.44 each. If I decline, then they (eventually) refund me, but it’s a huge waste of time and a terrible way to do business. Even if I can get the parts, I’ll pay through the nose and my retail product prices will surely need to increase.

I’m afraid it’s a gloomy forecast. I’ll keep scrounging for parts as long as I can, and hope that this shortage eases soon.

Read 10 comments and join the conversation 

10 Comments so far

  1. steve cox - September 15th, 2022 10:00 am

    So sad, this is going to hurt the hobby as the floppy emu is vital for us. I wish you luck in finding parts!!

  2. Jerry - September 15th, 2022 6:47 pm

    If you can, you might get better or different answers from distributors like Arrow or Avnet. They work with the manufacturers differently. Your volume might be to small to get their attention though.

    At work we’re having better luck thru Arrow at getting parts on dates they promise. It’s still miserable though. I almost put together a chart on the updates I got on one of my Mouser orders. The part was supposed to be July, then Late 2023, then back to july and then 2023 again with some septembers thrown in their for fun. Every week I got a different date.

  3. Steve - September 15th, 2022 8:29 pm

    As far as I can see, Avnet doesn’t show whether a part is on order or what date they expect to have more. They just say out of stock, factory lead time 52 weeks. Do you know of any way to get that info? For example: https://www.avnet.com/shop/us/products/amd-xilinx/xc9572xl-10vqg44c-3074457345626108301/

  4. Steve Moody - September 16th, 2022 4:46 am

    FPGA parts seem to be especially bad at the moment. I bought some, admittedly EOL, Spartan-3 parts off mouser around 2 years ago for around £30 each. They are now showing as out of stock and over £330 each. At least that was a hobby project.

    Just before the shortage happened, My company is a small to medium sized business that uses electronics to drive almost all our products. I re-designed a couple of boards for my company that were to replace a microcontoller that was no longer recommended for new designs. I choose the STM32 microcontrollers as they we abundant and easily available.

    The supply of those disappeared almost overnight. Even simple parts we seem to have to search for replacements. I’ve spent the last couple of years redesigning almost every PCB we have. We have to buy stock for a lot of parts to last a couple of years and design around those. The PCB design is almost the easy part, the firmware re-writes, testing for comparability issues and everything else has made the last couple of years a nightmare in this regard.

    I can feel your pain on this shortage but I can imagine it’s even worse for somebody like you running a small business

  5. Adrian - September 16th, 2022 12:31 pm

    My experience early in the pandemic convinced me that Mouser is letting their big customers cut in line, bumping preorders from us small fries. While my orders at Mouser got bumped for 12 months, the same parts shipped on time from Digi-Key and Arrow. Mouser also seems to be the most aggressive of the major distributors in charging “market” prices. All that soured my opinion of Mouser and I try to avoid them if I can.

  6. Jerry - September 16th, 2022 4:43 pm

    The industry has gotten to the point where you just have to get in line for parts, and wait for your turn to come up, and keep after them, don’t just go silent and wait. I’m sure Avnet’s getting some of those parts in every month, they’re just going out to other customers. If there’s extras for some reason or other, that shows up as stock.

    Some of what’s happening that we as end customers can’t see is the manufacturers are selecting which distributor gets how many of what parts. And then when a “catalog” distributor like Mouser or DigiKey gets some extra parts in, a bunch of companies see that and rush out and buy them. So Mouser gets pushed around in line too.

    Where I work, we’ve switched around to seeing what parts are available, checking to see if we think we can use them, buying them, and then completing the design. That’s really hard for many businesses to do. And it’s a pain for everyone in the process.

    You might get better feedback from a sales person than the websites, especially if you can combine all your orders so they see more $$$. We also had to have our CEO make some phone calls personally, as we were being ghosted otherwise by one manufacturer who had just talked to us a few months prior. I really don’t have a better answer, unfortunately. We end up talking to our Arrow sales rep at least every week.

  7. Ramtop - September 23rd, 2022 4:14 pm

    I feel your pain on this one, Steve. Three of my four products use XC9572XL CPLDs, and while I still have some stock of the 64-pin variant the 100-pin ones are almost gone and I’ve resorted to ordering from shady Chinese suppliers.

    But that’s a major headache. Mostly they either make excuses (the “in stock” part isn’t, but they can get some in a couple of months, and/or the price I’ve paid suddenly quadruples) or they send fake or non-working parts.

    I did get a batch of ‘new’ XC9572XL-100s that were obvious pulls and a quarter of them didn’t work, but I regard that as a major win as they were cheap enough that a 25% failure rate still gives me some working chips at a reasonable price per unit.

    But this is just a band-aid. I’m having to seriously look at doing a re-design around a different chip. Easiest route would be to swap out the XC9572XL for an XCR3064XL, as those are available in quantity. They’re painfully expensive at nearly £17 a chip, but better than nothing.

  8. rasz_pl - September 24th, 2022 3:49 pm

    Remember how I suggested RP2040? Mouser has ~20K in stock at $1.3 a pop. People are building PC ISA/PCMCIA cards (doing full Gravis ultrasound emulation with $5 devboard) talking directly (well, after 5-3.3v conversion) to the bus because PIO latency is so amazing.

  9. Steve - September 25th, 2022 7:58 am

    Yes, a redesign around new chips would be the smart long-term play. It’s been at the top of my to-do list for more than a year, but I’ve made no progress and I have to be honest with myself I just don’t have the interest or energy to do it now. At this point in my life, if it becomes impossible to continue the current design, I’d probably rather retire the product and move on to new interests and new challenges.

  10. Sean Cunneen - September 26th, 2022 11:18 am

    If you retired the product, I hope that you would open source the code and the design so that somebody else could make a new version.

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