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Supply Chain Technology

Making silicon semiconductors

As the global shortage of silicon semiconductors (also called chips) continues, what better time is there to read up on how these intricate, tiny components are made?

One of the reasons the industry can’t catch up with the heightened demand for chips is that creating them takes huge amounts of time and precision. From the starting point of refining quartz sand, to the end product of a tiny chip with the capacity to hold thousands of components, let’s have a quick walkthrough of it all:

Silicon Ingots

Silicon is the most common semiconductor material currently used, and is normally refined from the naturally-occurring material silicon dioxide (SiO₂) or, as you might know it, quartz.

Once the silicon is refined and becomes hyper pure, it is heated to 1420˚C which is above its melting point. Then a single crystal, called the seed, is dipped into the molten mixture and slowly pulled out as the liquid silicon forms a perfect crystalline structure around it. This is the start of our wafers.

Slicing and Cleaning

The large cylinder of silicon is then cut into very fine slices with a diamond saw, and further polished so they are at a perfect thickness to be used in integrated circuits (ICs). This polishing process is undertaken in a clean room, where workers have to wear suits that will not collect particles and will cover their whole body. Even a single speck of dirt could ruin the wafers, so the clean room only allows up to 100 particles per cubic foot of air.

Photolithography

In this stage the silicon is covered with a layer of material called a photoresist, and is then put under a UV light mask to create the pattern of circuits on the wafer. Some of the photoresist layer is washed away by a solvent, and the remaining photoresist is stamped onto the silicon to produce the pattern.

Fun fact – The yellow light often seen in pictures of semiconductor fabs is in the lithography rooms. The photoresist material is sensitive to high frequency light, which is why UV is used to make it soluble. To avoid damaging the rest of the wafer, low frequency yellow light is used in the room.

The process of photolithography can be repeated many times to create the required outlines on each wafer, and it is at this stage that the outline of each individual rectangular chip is printed onto the wafer too.

Layering

The fine slices are stacked on top of each other to form the final ICs, with up to 30 unique wafers being used in sequence to create a single computer chip. The outlines of the chips are then cut to separate them from the wafer, and packaged individually to protect them.

The final product

Due to this convoluted, delicate process, the time take to manufacture a single semiconductor is estimated to take up to four months. This, and the specialist facilities that are needed to enable production, results in an extreme amount of care needing to be taken throughout fabrication.

If you’re struggling to source electronic components during this shortage, look no further than Cyclops Electronics. Cyclops specialises in both regular and hard-to-find components. Get in touch now to see how easy finding stock should be, at sales@cyclops-electronics.com.

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Component Shortage Electronic Components Supply Chain Technology

Will continued global Covid measures extend electronic component shortages?

Continued global Covid measures will likely extend electronic component shortages, hindering manufacturers for several years.

The coronavirus pandemic has reshaped the global economy irreparably. Demand for electronic components has shifted, supply chains are broken, and new, more infectious variants threaten to bend normality further.  

It looks like the world is running out of electronic components, but there’s more to shortages than meets the eye.

The coronavirus pandemic is the biggest reason behind component shortages. With this single statement, we can deduce that shortages will subside when the pandemic subsides, freeing up supply chains through fewer restrictions.

However, we know the coronavirus isn’t going anywhere, and its persistence and ability to evolve means we have to learn to live with it.

Add raw material shortages, soaring prices, low investment in new manufacturing facilities, and geopolitical issues related to supply and demand. Now we have a recipe for several years of component shortages.

How covid reshaped supply chains 

In May 2020, the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic hit most of the world. Countries locked down, and most sectors of the economy suffered.

Demand for some categories decreased, while demand for others increased. For instance, demand for vehicles evaporated while demand for home computers soared, creating an imbalance in the supply chain.

Estimates suggest that vehicle sales fell by 50% or more within a single month. In response, vehicle manufacturers scaled backorders for components.  

At the same time, demand for electronics chips and parts soared as more people spent time working from home.

When demand ramped back up for vehicles, there weren’t enough components to serve them and electronics. This is a story shared by multiple industries, with supply chains broken by supply and demand imbalances.

The matter wasn’t helped by local and national lockdowns, circuit breakers, new variants, and mitigating problems like floods and climate change.

There is no easy solution or fast fix 

The pandemic has also caused prices for common and rare earth metals to explode, increasing over 70% since the start of 2021 for some metals. These prices are made even worse by soaring inflation.

Trying to build supply chain resilience during the coronavirus pandemic is like trying to build a house of cards on a jittering floor. Just when you think you have it, something comes along that knocks it down, and you have to start over.  

The simple fact is that the world needs more factories to make components, and it needs to get a grip on inflation. The Covid pandemic is not going away, although the virus appears to be getting milder, which is a good sign for the future.

You can bolster your supply chain by working with an electronic components distributor like us, increasing your inventory, and quickly moving to equivalent components when you experience shortages of active and passive components. Email us today with your component inquiries sales@cyclops-eletronics.com

Although global Covid measures are likely to extend electronic component shortages, there is no reason why they should stop you from doing business.

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Component Shortage Electronic Components Future Supply Chain Technology

Semiconductor Supply Chain Will Remain Vulnerable Without Robust Investment in Advanced Packaging

new U.S. study has found that the advanced semiconductor packaging supply chain needs strengthening to meet the increasing demand for chips.

According to the report, without robust federal investment, the semiconductor supply chain in the U.S. faces an uphill battle to meet demand.

The study also highlights the crucial role of advanced packaging in driving innovation in semiconductor designs. At present, most of the chips in the U.S. are sent abroad for packaging and assembly into finished products. By moving packaging to North America, the entire electronics ecosystem can be improved.

The big players in the U.S. include Applied Materials, Amkor Technology, Ayar Labs, Lam Research, Microsemi Semiconductor and KLA-Tencor Corporation. These companies have seen unprecedented demand for semiconductor packaging, with growth predicted to rise as the world becomes smarter and more connected.

Other report findings 

The study also found that while the U.S. can design cutting-edge electronics, it lacks the capabilities to make them. This is creating an overreliance on foreign companies, including companies in China, creating considerable risk.

Looking at the most recent data, the study highlights that North America’s share of global advanced semiconductor packaging production is just 3 per cent. In other words, at present, the U.S. is incapable of assembling its own chips.

The study concludes that the U.S. also needs to invest in developing and producing advanced integrated circuit substrates. Advanced integrated circuit substrates are crucial components for packaging circuit chips. Currently, the U.S. has nascent capabilities, putting it behind Europe, China and most other countries.

What can we deduce from the report? That the U.S. is behind in most aspects of semiconductor packaging. Decades of low investment and overseas partnerships have led to a manufacturing ecosystem devoid of domestic talent.

As the U.S. comes to terms with its poor manufacturing ecosystem, China is ramping up assembly plants. In the face of increasing competition, the U.S. must focus on domestic investment in the near and medium-term. Without robust investment, they could fall further behind and lose out to their biggest competitors.

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Component Shortage Electronic Components Future Supply Chain Technology

Global chip shortage to impact electronic retailers holiday season

The holiday season usually marks the start of an electronics sales boon for retailers. Consumers buy more electronics in the lead up to Christmas than at any other time of the year. This year, however, things are different.

This holiday season, the global chip shortage is set to impact electronic retailers, with shortages of popular products like games consoles, graphics cards, smartphones, laptops and tablets likely to persist through to 2022.

Due to problems buying stock, most retailers are bracing themselves for low Christmas electronics goods sales. The global chip shortage means fewer electronics goods are being made, so there is a long lead time from suppliers – some retailers are waiting several months for new stock, only for it to sell out within days.

Consumers should start holiday shopping now 

Chips are in critically short supply this year, which has reduced manufacturing output at many of the world’s biggest factories.

Companies like Samsung, Apple, Intel and AMD are experiencing problems getting the chips they need. Today, some chips have delays of over a year, and inventory supplies for chips are running low, putting pressure on supply chains.

All of this means there is a shortage of in-demand electronics goods, from games consoles to smartwatches. The message is simple – consumers should start holiday shopping now to ensure they can get hold of the electronics they want.

It is also crucial that consumers don’t take stock levels for granted. What’s in stock today might be out of stock tomorrow, and many retailers have lead times of several months for new stock. So, if you need it, you should buy it while you can.

Is the chip shortage being blown out of proportion? 

We are so used to next-day Amazon delivery and seeing shiny electronics on store shelves that chip shortages appear to be a fantasy.

However, the chip shortage is real – manufacturers are struggling to create enough chips, and suppliers can’t get hold of the inventory they need.

Another fox in the henhouse is chip price increases. Companies are bidding through the roof for components, and prices are rising rapidly. Manufacturers don’t absorb these price rises – they are passed down the supply chain, and eventually, they find their way to the consumer (creating consumer inflation).

Chip prices are increasing for several reasons. The obvious reason is supply and demand economics – the less available something is, the higher the price.

Another significant reason is prices for rare earth metals have exploded over the last 12 months, moving nearly 50% higher on average since March.

Summing up the chip shortage

There is a severe chip shortage happening right now that threatens the availability of electronics goods this holiday season. Prices for chips are also skyrocketing, increasing the price of devices like smartphones and smart devices.

All of this is to say, if you plan on buying some chip-reliant electronics this holiday season, you should start shopping now or face being disappointed.

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Electronic Components

Why is chip sovereignty so important?

The US and EU are planning for chip sovereignty. This is to aim to defend domestic chip supplies and move manufacturing back home.

At first glance this is a tall order, considering most chips are made in China and China controls 55% of rare earth metal production. However, it is nether the less crucial to ensure that the Western world has access to the chips it needs.

The need for chip sovereignty

As the electronics industry battles on with chip shortages, we are seeing car plants cut production and companies delay product launches.

These are only a few examples of measures applied like sticky plasters over supply chains that have been bleeding for years.

We are in a situation where electronic components manufacturers are running at 99-100% capacity. Demand has soared for all types of components, from chips and memory to diodes and displays, squeezing supply chains.

Quite simply, demand is outstripping supply.

Many of the problems in the supply chain are geopolitical and logistical in nature. Therefore, by moving manufacturing back home, nations like the US and the EU will be able to control the supply chain (or most of it) and make supply meet demand.

What’s happening?

The EU will legislate to push for chip sovereignty with the forthcoming “European Chips Act”. It aims to stop European countries from competing with each other for chips, instead having them work together to compete globally.

The US isn’t legislating for chip sovereignty, but the Biden administration used its first budget proposal to Congress to call for domestic funding to fight semiconductor shortages, with figures up to $50 billion being touted.

The UK is at odds with the US and EU with no chip sovereignty in sight.

Simply put, the UK is selling off chip firms, with $42 billion sold since 2010 (figures from US research). For example, In July, the UK’s largest chip plant was acquired by Nexperia. This is a Dutch firm wholly owned by Shanghai-based Wingtech.

This raises concerns over the future of UK chip manufacturing. Industry funding is seriously lacking too, putting the UK firmly behind the US and EU.

Companies are a successful case study 

As countries continue to struggle to meet demand for chips, some companies have taken matters into their own hands.

Apple produces their own chip called the M1 for the MacBook Air and iMac, and Google is doing the same with the Tensor chip, used in the Pixel 6 smartphone.

By moving away from Intel and Qualcomm respectively. Apple and Google have taken greater control over their supply chains, cutting out many geopolitical and logistical issues and unlocking greater pricing power.

With the global chip shortage showing no signs of abating and rare earth metal prices soaring. Supply chains are only going to get squeezed more in the near future.

Chip sovereignty will be important for nations to meet demand and reduce reliance on China, Taiwan, and other countries a very long way away.

However, while the EU legislates for chip sovereignty, and the Biden administration pushes Congress for domestic chip funding. The UK continues to sell off chip firms to foreign investors. This will bite down hard when chip imports take a hit.