Chip shortages aren’t news. They’ve been at least a recurring (if not a chronic) condition since long before the dot com boom of the 1990s, even though pre-pandemic predictions were that Moore’s Law would end sometime this decade. Demand for semiconductor chips has increased exponentially due to our increasingly electronic-powered lives and the exponentially expanding number of chips required to power our devices, from smart electronics to cars. A single electronic car part can use 500 to 1500 chips.
What is causing the chip shortage this year? It’s affecting the bottom line for companies as big and smart as Apple and Tesla. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, though, a trifecta of bad decisions, bad luck, and increased demand have led to yet another semiconductor chip shortage, according to James Lewis, director of the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
In 2022, the top three supply chain risks will be:
- Component price increases due to materials shortages and manufacturing disruptions as a result of climate change and the continuing pandemic;
- Longer lead times due to buffer inventory depletion; and
- Geopolitical rivalries between China and North America.
Geopolitics and Techno-Nationalism
While the Biden government’s style differs dramatically from the previous administration (tariffs, sanctions, and bluster), its policies aren’t really all that different. Both China and the US have become highly cognizant of the need for near-shore chip production to meet increasing local demand. The American response includes the passage in 2021 of the CHIPS for America Act, with its $50 billion allocation for semiconductor R&D and local semiconductor manufacturing.
According to Hinrich Foundation Research Fellow Alex Capri, “China’s dominant position in the 5G space via Huawei and ZTE has prompted the US to foster strategic partnerships in Asia. Ties between the US and Japan, in particular, look set to grow stronger through new techno-diplomacy initiatives.” Apple has recently transferred 20% of its iPhone manufacturing to India, and reducing reliance on Chinese-manufactured chips means looking to South Korea and Taiwan for increased capacity as well.
However, the American chip manufacturing market share, which has plummeted from 37% to 12% since 1990, won’t rise dramatically overnight. The CHIPS and FAB acts are long-term strategies that won’t see significant results for a few years.
Catch-22: Bad Decisions, Bad Luck, and Increased Demand
When the pandemic began, no one knew how long it would last or how it would affect consumption. Automakers, in particular, guessed that the economy would nosedive and the demand for cars would shrink. Some of them canceled standing orders for semiconductor chips. When, despite a huge increase in people working from home, demand did not drop, it was too late. Chip manufacturers had retooled to focus on the increased demand for consumer electronics fueled by work-from-home mandates imposed by governments or offered by corporations looking to ensure their employees’ safety. By the time automakers tried to reorder, it was too late.
Aside from the bad luck of the pandemic itself causing interruptions to manufacturing, increased materials prices, drought in Taiwan, winter storms in Texas, and a fire at Japanese chip maker Renesas’ facility are some examples of things that went wrong and created the current automotive chip shortage.
In October 2021, an ocean storm and resulting fire on board led to the loss of nearly 110 shipping containers traveling from South Korea to Canada’s west coast. Among the items lost: car parts, as well as the shipping containers themselves, which have been in short supply during the pandemic as some ports have been closed for months with containers either trapped in port or unable to dock. With manufacturing facilities closed even when ports reopened, it has often not been viable for containers to return to home port without cargo.
Risk Assessment and Shortage Management
Mark Fields, former Ford CEO, said recently, “There is going to be a lot of soul-searching over what’s the best thing to do to balance both the economics and the geopolitics of this [semiconductor shortages in the auto industry, which rely so heavily on the economics of scale].”
In November 2021, Ford and GlobalFoundries announced a strategic alliance to address the supply-demand chip imbalance, design semiconductor solutions, and expand chip manufacturing opportunities. Meanwhile, General Motors is working on reducing the variety of chips required for its vehicles to ease supply chain issues.
Government tax credits and other incentives will not resolve the supply shortage overnight. They may also not allow for the economies of scale American manufacturers require to remain competitive. And while Intel plans to scale up semiconductor chip production and Texas Instruments, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., and Samsung intend to build factories in the US, they won’t be ramped up to full production levels for years.
While opinions differ on how long shortage management will be required, no risk assessment would be complete if it didn’t factor in what we’ve learned can go wrong after the pandemic perfect storm.
The Rising Need for Visibility
Factory automation is increasing inventory accuracy while tracking via lidar, radar, and optic sensors from manufacturing to delivery provide increased visibility. Enhanced monitoring ensures better quality control. But procurement needs more as it is increasingly recognized as a vital strategic function within organizations. Commodity intelligence has to include data on component lead times, demand changes, market dynamics, pricing, supplier design cycle dynamics, and raw materials trends.
Investing in SaaS that supplies data analytics and applied AI combined with expert analysis and curated insights is crucial. With component prices up 40% in 2Q 2021 over 1Q, lead times of up to 60 weeks, and out-of-stock inventory increasing dramatically, real-time commodity intelligence is a must.
Not all manufacturers have the design resources and agility of companies like Tesla, which has coped with the chip shortage by swapping out chips and replacing them with rewritten software-coded chips. And Tesla CEO Elon Musk described it as “… an incredibly intense effort of finding new chips, writing new firmware, integrating with the vehicle and testing in order to maintain production.”
Using commodity intelligence to monitor and mitigate risks can reduce product delays (both supply and launch) and eliminate pricey spot buying. Solutions like Supplyframe’s Commodity I.Q. highlight the need to work more closely (and sometimes even partner) with suppliers and provide both the data and the insights procurement officers need to do just that.
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