Elementary, Mr. Watson: First, Component Shortages, and Now Hot Dogs?

When I considered the title for this column, I seriously considered calling it “From the frying pan into the fire.” I thought this because, as I’m sure you’ve noticed recently, the component shortage problem has only worsened; we’re now seeing other supply lines breaking down. For example, the other day, I made my usual lunchtime run to a fine food establishment—the local Sonic—hoping to indulge in my customary Chicago dog. Although I know it’s scary to consider Sonic as “fine dining,” imagine my horror when I heard that they were totally out of hot dogs—of all things! Now, I can handle component shortages and not bat an eye, but when something comes between my Chicago dog and me, that’s where I draw the line. Similarly, PCNAlert connected to IHS Markit confirms that EOL notices for components are increasing at an alarming rate. Furthermore, IHS says, “The estimated cost to manufacturers for missing one EOL notice is $20,000 to $50,000.” It seems everyone is feeling the pain. 

Because of my position with Altium, I have the privilege to speak to customers every day. A common recurring theme is that companies are making a considerable paradigm shift from engineering new product lines to supporting and sustaining legacy product lines. Several well-known companies informed me just this week that they have ceased all recent engineering efforts or will delay the release of new products and concentrate solely on keeping the legacy products alive. That is a direct result related to the component shortages. Keeping those legacy products lines viable is key to whether a company will survive. 

I am the type of person that when something like this happens, I want to know why. What is the root cause of the issue? First, the main reason for the changing company’s focus is the availability of components. A critical point to mention is that the parts are available, but the problem is with who has them. If you go to such sights as Octopart and look at who has the available stock, you’ll see that the smaller component broker houses hold much of the public component stock.

Furthermore, many of those companies are overseas. They have bought up and are hoarding (for lack of a better word) the components. By controlling inventory, and because of that pesky economics of supply and demand, you now see the result of the considerable increase in component cost. In a recent conversation with a company, they told me an FPGA that they used for some time at $75 per chip has now increased to over $1,000 per chip. To get the needed stock of 500 pieces to do a production build would cost over a half-million dollars. That is not sustainable for any company to do that. I might add that it’s also outrageous. That fact forces companies to move engineering efforts over to maintaining the legacy designs, as well as the status quo. We’ll never know the financial impact of such decisions.   

Executing a plan for dealing with “Not Recommended for New design” (NRFND), or quickly obsolete components, means becoming very creative and avoiding the dreaded re-designing and new board spins.

Which I will say is not a solution at all, when you think about it. Instead, it turns into a classic case of the tail wagging the dog. You might solve the immediate emergency, but the situation is so volatile that it is only a temporary fix. Placing the component in a design is the easy part. The big question is whether a specific part will even be available.

Multiple-Part Choices vs. Alternate Components
The new focus is sustaining product lines and simply trying to find replacement components for those that are unavailable or have gone obsolete. I have heard the terms “multiple-part choices” and “alternate components” used interchangeably. But there is a difference between them.

As we all know (if you have been an avid reader of I-Connect007), a component has various parts of information and models. Some of that information is static, and others are dynamic; you guessed it, the part choices of manufacturer and suppliers are not just dynamic but very dynamic.

A multiple-part choice is another component that exactly matches the form-fit-function (FFF), also known as a drop-in replacement. This whole process usually occurs much more with the discrete parts. For non-discretes, you most likely only have a single manufacturer, especially with specialty integrated circuits (ICs), etc. But, because of the availability of MFG and vendors of discrete components, a common practice is to add as many multiple-part choices as possible. I always assure there are at least five to six different MFGs for each discrete. You’ll often find that you cycle through those part choices pretty quickly. And when a specific part choice begins to deprecate, they are taken off the preferred vendor list and replaced with another.

On the other hand is the alternate components. They are ones that first meet the FFF criteria of your circuit, which takes care of the first initial problem of getting the component on a specific footprint. But the alternate components may vary in some of the electrical parametric specifications.

Deciding on the alternate component is walking a fine line. We know how Indiana Jones felt when selecting which cup was the actual Holy Grail. We should consider the same warning to “choose wisely.” When you have a completed designed circuit, the hope is to have that device operate in a specific manner under particular conditions. Once either one of those is changed, you slowly drift away from the ideal operating situation. Making changes in the designs impact everything that comes after it—including any compliance testing or approvals already done.

When considering an alternate component, look at all aspects of the component, including electrical and mechanical specifications. However, unless you want to be going through this exercise again very shortly, the first thing needed is to look at the lifecycle information and predictions for the near future on availability. Unfortunately, that isn’t easy right now.

Keep in mind to remove as much of the risk as possible when looking at alternate components. That takes a broad understanding of the circuit. Finding an excellent replacement is simple enough by understanding the electrical parameters and the trade-offs on the specific differences and whether they are an improvement or a detriment to the circuit. Let’s say you are using a 1K resistor, 0402 size, at a 5% tolerance. Your alternate component should not be a “worse” component, such as selecting one with a 10% tolerance. You loosen the parameter, and the component quality worsens. A better choice would be to use a 1% tolerance. For each component in your library, know each specification/parameter and which “direction” changes can take.

The final point is to be proactive in working with both your multiple part choices and alternate components. The library is a living, breathing thing and is constantly changing; with that said, frequently check and know the status of your components by identifying earlier any problems or issues. That is something I would check daily for now. If you are reactive to component shortage and availability, it will substantially impact your product lines and probably take them down entirely. No products to your customers. Not good, not good at all.

John Watson, CID, is a customer success manager at Altium. 



Elementary, Mr. Watson: First, Component Shortages, and Now Hot Dogs?


When I considered the title for this month’s article, I seriously considered calling it "From the Frying Pan Into the Fire" because I’m sure you’ve noticed recently that the component shortage problem has only worsened—we’re now seeing other supply lines breaking down.

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Elementary Mr. Watson: PCB Design—It's a Team Sport


One of the hard lessons of this past year was about the value of the team and collaboration. I have repeatedly heard how many of us have a newfound respect and appreciation for the teams we work with inside our companies. Out of necessity, we had to find new ways to collaborate.

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Elementary, Mr. Watson: The Danger of Rogue Libraries


For PCB designers, the most common part of the library is the collection of components used in the PCB design process. But, I have seen some libraries have other information, including a resource area, a group of documents, standards, and articles. So basically it can have anything you want.

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Elementary, Mr. Watson: Epic Fails with Design Rules


Various sciences, including physics, mathematics, chemistry, are significantly involved throughout the PCB design process, rules that can sometimes be bent but not broken. However, the rules that designers break and ignore altogether and very often are the design rules.

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Elementary, Mr. Watson: Managing Risk in PCB Design


PCB design is like bungee jumping. With the complexity of a PCB design, the intricate details, and various steps, it's rather easy to make mistakes. Those mistakes, many times, do not show up until it's too late and the board has gone off to fabrication and assembly. By the way, a good rule is not to use your assembly house as your quality control team for PCB designs.

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Elementary, Mr. Watson: Time to Market, from Ludicrous Speed to Plaid


Mel Brooks may have something to teach us about going "ludicrous speed" in getting our designs to the finish line. John Watson explains.

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Elementary, Mr. Watson: Trust but Verify


Over many years, I have seen some elaborate PCB library systems. However, the best ones were those not based on the size but rather the quality of the information. That old axiom is definitely “not quantity but rather quality.”

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Elementary, Mr. Watson: Paying the Price To Be a PCB Designer


Today, the electronics industry is flourishing with innovations and technologies. The result is that the “good” designers are left in the dust. Truthfully, our industry doesn't need more good designers; rather, we need great designers—those who can face any challenge and instead of cowering in the corner, looks at the task at hand and says, "Bring it on."

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Elementary, Mr. Watson: Keeping Counterfeit Components Out of Your Library


To know whether anything is wrong, you must first know in detail what is correct to follow the standard or pattern. This principle could not be more true when handling our components in the library.

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Elementary, Mr. Watson: The Printed Circuit Board Design


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Elementary, Mr. Watson: Demystifying Bypass Capacitors


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Elementary, Mr. Watson: Density Feasibility Putting 10 Lbs in a 5-Lb Bag


Whether on a customer, a system, or a PCB level, it’s essential to understand the final objective and how you intend to get there and meet the customer need at the forefront of any project. In this column, John Watson addresses density feasibility and more.

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Elementary, Mr. Watson: Location, Location, Location


When it comes to PCB design, one of the most overlooked principles is component placement. Similar to a home, the component location has a considerable impact on the quality and is the real value of a PCB design. John Watson examines five rules to follow when it comes to component placement.

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Elementary, Mr. Watson: Overcoming PCB Designs Pitfalls


When starting every PCB design, the hope is that we can navigate through any pitfalls that arrive. Unfortunately, many times, issues happen that you do not handle correctly; they fall through the cracks and end up in your PCB design. John Watson explains how that is when the real problems begin.

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Elementary, Mr. Watson: How to Ruin Your PCB Design in 4 Easy Steps


John Watson has seen firsthand how quickly PCB designs can “go off the rails” by not following a few simple principles. In this column, he looks at four practices that can easily ruin your PCB design.

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Elementary, Mr. Watson: PCB Components Naming Conventions


How you accurately analyze and identify certain information has a direct connection to the overall success of your PCB designs. In this column, John Watson focuses on the conventional naming scheme for the schematic symbol and footprint to prevent headaches and ulcers later.

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Elementary, Mr. Watson: Collaboration in the PCB Design Process


The past few months have been trying for everyone, with many of us working from home. However, there are still the underlining principles of collaboration to step into a role to finish the necessary tasks to keep a project moving forward. John Watson, CID, explains.

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Elementary, Mr. Watson: Reinventing Yourself


When COVID-19 first hit, many businesses were forced to close, and we immediately saw its impact on the service industry. Whatever challenge you’re facing, John Watson emphasizes that it’s time to hit the switch on reinventing.

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Elementary, Mr. Watson: The Positive Side of COVID-19


With the recent COVID-19 outbreak worldwide, most of us have been forced to reshuffle how we work, live, and play. Something like this has never happened before in our lifetimes, and it is scary and challenging, but difficult times develop resilient people. John Watson shares some of the positive things he has already noticed come out of this situation.

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Elementary, Mr. Watson: Are We There Yet?


Anyone who has taken a road trip with children knows the question, “Are we there yet?” very well. This question also applies to PCB design. If you are not careful, your PCB project could easily go off track and you could lose sight of what you are doing (objective), why (motivation), how (process), and when (schedule). John Watson emphasizes the importance of these fundamental questions.

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