Almost everyone has heard about the parts shortage that is currently affecting the global supply chain for semiconductors. In the past, news of a microchip shortage wouldn’t make much of a splash on national news, but the current situation is unprecedented. The lead time on some parts is more than a year (and even longer in some cases). Distributors and contract manufacturers are scrambling to get customers the parts that they need, but sometimes they simply are not available and an alternative solution is the only path forward. At Indesign, LLC, we’ve adapted quickly to ensure that our clients’ product designs can move to full production despite the parts shortage.

Alternative Parts

When a chip is in short supply, it can often be replaced with a similar part that is readily available. Sometimes the only difference between the original part and the alternative part is the packaging. This means that the two parts have the exact same functionality and pinout, but the physical size or shape is different. For example, a manufacturer may make the same microcontroller with a quad flat package (QFP) or a quad-flat no-leads (QFN) package, where the only difference is that the QFP package has a “leg” for each pin and the QFN package only has exposed pads. For whatever reason, a supplier may have lots of a particular part with one type of package, but none of the other. For many electronic product designs, the parts package type doesn’t matter too much and the Indesign electrical engineer will choose whichever variety is available.

Chip Shortage QFP Package
QFP Package
Chip Shortage QFN Package
QFN Package

Sometimes, a part is completely unavailable in all package types, and the Indesign engineer will look for a part from the same manufacturer that is very similar and requires only minor design changes. But in some cases, a completely different part must be used from a different manufacturer. Indesign engineers regularly design with a wide variety of chips, so switching manufacturers rarely presents a problem.

Planning Ahead

Regardless of which part is selected for a design, it is critically important to evaluate part availability early in the design process. At Indesign, this happens in the architecture phase of a project. During this phase, Indesign engineers work with our clients and chip manufacturers/distributors to select parts, determine volumes, and estimate lead time. For product prototypes, Indesign can usually find a sufficient quantity of parts through regular distribution channels, but we can also leverage our long-standing relationships with semiconductor partners when a part is particularly difficult to find even for smaller prototype quantities. For larger production quantities, Indesign works with manufacturers and distributors to determine the lead time, which can be quite long in the current climate. However, by solidifying the architecture and placing orders early, parts will be available much sooner for production.

Working Early with Contract Manufacturers

Even in a normal environment where most parts are readily available, it’s wise to get the contract manufacturer involved early. But in the current environment, it’s critical to involve them in the design process as early as possible to ensure target production dates are met. Oftentimes our clients already have an established relationship with a contract manufacturer, but in cases where they do not, Indesign can make introductions early so that the manufacturer selection process can begin. Contract manufacturers often have advanced software available to them for searching the semiconductor global supply chain, so Indesign will work with them as soon as possible to get the bill-of-materials finalized and production parts ordered.

Looking Ahead

Some predictions say that the semiconductor shortage will get worse before it gets better. It’s very difficult to forecast exactly when the shortage will end, but most estimates agree that it will continue far into or beyond 2022. Though the current climate can make certain aspects of new product development more difficult, Indesign has continued to help clients successfully launch brand new products despite the parts shortage. Leaning on decades of engineering and product development experience, Indesign can help navigate clients over this latest hurdle. Contact us today at (317) 377-5450 for any questions or to learn more.