Navigating the Failing Components Supply Chain

If 2020 was defined by managing the business through the pandemic, then the following years have been defined by components shortages.  In more than three decades of being an electronics engineer, I have never seen a shortage so broad and extensive as the current situation.  There is no single cause, with contributing factors such as semiconductor capacity, EV and automation in the car market, transportation capacity, workforce, fuel and so on.  This problem is global, largely out of our control and it’s not going away soon.  So as engineers, we have to respond and adapt.

There isn’t going to be a single solution.  Products and manufacturing facilities are complex, with unique demands of demand, availability and supply, so the best, or rather ‘least-worst’ option, will be specific to each case. It is important to consider the options and be diligent in the business analysis, but don’t delay in making decisions.

One of the first reactions is to look to the grey market to supply the components.  Whilst there are many credible suppliers out there, the risk of fraudulent or poor-quality components is real and often very difficult to identify.  If this option is taken, manufacturers should be aware of the risks and be aware that some quality problems may arise with the product.

Supplier assessment and component documentation are the primary tools to mitigate this, but if the need is sufficient consider third-party verification of the components.  In some sectors such as medical and safety, going to the grey market may not be possible.

Alternative components should not be selected from online distributor sites just because the title and pinout look the same.  The operation of electronic circuits is often affected by secondary component parameters and so alternatives should always be reviewed and approved by someone who understands the product and circuit operation.

With a good understanding of the circuit operation, alternative components can often be identified.  In some cases, these can be a simple drop-in replacement, but sometimes more extensive investigation and changes are needed.

Even with the best processes in place, it is still important to verify the first samples of the updated design to ensure it operates correctly.  Whilst by this stage there will naturally be great time pressure to get production running, modifying many units is painful in cost and time.  With careful management, the test and verification can be performed within hours of sample manufacture.

The business case and decision-making around component alternatives require open communication between the factory, engineers and business managers.  Close collaboration, speed and trust can significantly reduce the cost and time to keep production going.

Looking forward, component supply is likely to remain a factor for years to come, although we do expect significant improvement in 2023.  So, what can we do to reduce the likelihood of problems?

It is important to provide good forecasts to the factory and suppliers.  This really gives your supply chain the best chance of reliable supply.

When designing new products, take the uncertainty of component supply into consideration early in the development.  In the project risk assessment, consider how alternatives would be addressed and modify the design to increase the options.  This can change the electronics, software or mechanics of the product.  You can’t avoid the risk but you can mitigate it.

At Partner Electronics we are assisting our clients with this challenging journey and we’re continuously evolving our design processes to improve the resilience of our designs to component supply issues.