November 20, 2023

Hardware Solutions for the Global Crisis

Armin Kožljak, Engineering Manager
Almost one-third of every electronic system consists of semiconductor components. These components encompass not only integrated chips and processors but also a myriad of other elements used for control, management, displaying, and similar operations. The crucial characteristic of each semiconductor is the conduction of electrical energy under specific user-influenced conditions.

It is essential to emphasize that the production of semiconductor components is an intricate process. Consequently, there are only a handful of facilities worldwide dedicated to this task. Geographically, the production process is concentrated in just a few countries, with approximately 50% being manufactured in Taiwan and South Korea.

Everything was functioning smoothly until the year 2020. The crisis emerged a few months after the sudden expansion of the coronavirus and the declaration of a pandemic. As the entire world came to a standstill, there was a global lockdown, leading significant manufacturing facilities, such as those in the automotive industry, to either greatly reduce or completely halt their operations. This inevitably resulted in a sharp decline in demand for semiconductor components and materials. Producers were compelled to decrease the production of certain types of semiconductors for which demand had fallen down.

What no one expected was that just a few months after the pandemic declaration, the demand for semiconductors would not only return to previous levels but skyrocket, surpassing pre-pandemic levels. At this crucial time, a fire broke out in one of the key facilities, bringing production to a complete standstill. All these factors led to significant issues in semiconductor supply. Production couldn't meet the demand, leading to a major global crisis of semiconductor component shortages. 

Global Market, Global Problem 

The crisis had a profound impact on the global market, and its effects are still felt today. During the crisis, most electronic equipment manufacturers couldn't meet customer demands. A large number of orders were postponed or canceled, and company profits sharply declined. Subsequently, stores closed, facilities shut down, and, of course, layoffs occurred.

All this forced electronic equipment manufacturers to react quickly to salvage or sustain their businesses. In those moments, manufacturers had to rely entirely on their engineering teams, primarily hardware engineers. However, even for them, the task was not easy, as most hardware engineers were facing such a problem for the first time.

At the outset, engineers approached the problem with various strategies to alleviate the crisis and continue production. What proved to be the most effective approach, at least from personal experience, was a form of redundant design of electronic boards.

This approach by hardware design engineers requires them to go through all electronic design components and for each find at least one alternative component from another manufacturer, whose components are not currently used. It is essential that this alternate component be identical in dimensions to the original. In case of a production halt for the current component, the alternative is used and placed in an identical location.

Component dimensions are just one of the requirements. Electrical properties and characteristics of alternative component are also crucial. These characteristics must be equal to or better than the existing ones to maintain the functionality of the electronic device in case of replacement.

After finding components that match the dimensions, engineers take into account their electrical characteristics and select alternative components that meet all the requirements imposed on the original component. This process significantly helped sustain production.

With the onset of the crisis, additional actions began to be implemented, primarily in the domain of new design. These actions required engineers not only to prepare alternative components but also to leave additional space for them in future designs. This means that we are no longer constrained by the dimensions of the original component; now, there is additional space in the design, providing more opportunities to easily cover the shortage of one component with another.

After taking all the measures mentioned above, the situation regarding the production of electronic devices has significantly stabilized, and most manufacturing facilities can meet customer needs.

Until the next challenge!