As everyday consumers stared at empty supermarket shelves, void of flour, yeast, and toilet paper, it was something almost none of us had ever experienced. However, for those in the electronics industry, supply issues and long component lead times are regular events. But, while our industry has contingency plans in place for such situations, the coronavirus has proven to be a challenge like none that has preceded it. 
Industry and Community Respond to Coronavirus
Figure 1: UCL-Ventura CPAP (Source: Jason Tye/UCL) 

Entering 2020, the electronics industry seemed to be, generally speaking, in a good place. Each year kicks off with two big events that involve the big players from the semiconductor and electronics industry: Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona, Spain, and Embedded World in Nürnberg, Germany. MWC is a gigantic event, with big, household names showing off the latest in tech. This year should have been all about 5G, new handsets, and how this technology would be rolled out over the next months and years. Instead, as big names pulled out of the event, it rapidly turned into a frantic series of discussions on how to keep the event going even though large sections of the exhibition would be empty. Eventually, the organisers cancelled the show completely.

For industry veterans, Embedded World is a must-attend exhibition that has earned its permanent February slot in the calendar over the last 15 years. Recording annually growing visitor numbers, 2019 saw more than 1,100 exhibitors and over 30,800 visitors participate.[1] Unfortunately, Germany’s first coronavirus case had been reported at the end of January, bringing this pending pandemic to the forefront of everyone’s minds.[2] The infection had been detected in an employee of an automotive supplier located to the south of Munich, making it feel worryingly close to our beloved industry. The virus had been brought to Germany by an employee visiting on business from China.[3]

By mid-February, STMicroelectronics had confirmed that, in order to ensure the health and safety of its employees, it had pulled out of both MWC and Embedded World.[4] Soon thereafter, semiconductor vendors, distributors, and other big industry players also announced that they would not be participating in the exhibition in 2020. The event went ahead, but there were 15% fewer exhibitors and less than half the number of visitors compared to the previous year.[5]

Abnormal Supply Chain Issues

The electronics industry is used to supply chain issues. Natural disasters, such as earthquakes and typhoons, regularly disrupt some part of the manufacturing chain. Earthquakes require semiconductor fabrication facilities to check and possibly recalibrate equipment. Typhoons can cause damage to facilities and restrict movement of employees, resulting in the delay of packaging silicon devices. However, such events are thankfully rare and, when they do occur, only a small segment of products, such as flash memory devices, are impacted. While some manufacturers operate just-in-time (JIT) production, many have learnt to deal with these hiccups in supply by building up their own inventory, allowing them to bridge any delays for weeks or even months.

Many industry insiders are used to long lead times on multi-layer ceramic capacitors (MLCC), chip resistors, and even printed circuit boards (PCB), and allocation on certain components during periods of rapid growth. It had been expected that the roll-out of 5G would place additional pressure on a recovering supply chain as demand for new base stations and smartphones grew through 2020. With the government response around the world quickly moving to shut down regions, and then entire countries, it became clear that existing mitigation plans would not resolve the challenges that COVID-19 was causing.

PCBs are a great example. At the start of 1980, China had just a 2% share of the global market. Today, around 55% of the world’s demand is manufactured there.[6] Due to the shutdown, even if manufacturers could find suppliers who were still operating, there was still the issue of logistics to confront; with employees at home, shipping capacity was also in short supply. In addition to this, some businesses are being limited to work only on manufacturing related to medical and military applications until restrictions are eased again.[7] This has left many in the industrial, automotive, and consumer segments in difficulty.

The Industry Responds

Engineers love to solve problems, and a crisis has many problems waiting for solutions. As more people became infected, it quickly became clear that the respiratory challenges arising from COVID19 were placing extreme pressure on health services. The breathing of many patients had to be supported by one of a range of ventilator solutions, but such equipment was often not available in the quantities demanded.

“Project Pitlane” was created by a collective of UK-based Formula 1 technical teams in response to the UK government’s request for COVID19 assistance.[8] This effort resulted in the UCL-Ventura breathing aid (see Figure 1). A Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) device, it is the next step in support for patients who need more than an oxygen mask. The patient wears a mask that seals to the face, while the pressurized air that the CPAP device delivers requires the patient’s respiratory muscles to work less hard. Where possible, this is preferred over the method of last resort, intubated ventilation, which requires the patient to be sedated as the machine fully takes over breathing.

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