Electronic Components and Toilet Paper Shortages: A Lesson in Pandemic Supply Chains

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It isn’t every day that we compare the electronics manufacturing industry to common household paper products, such as toilet paper. But here we are.

Resolving supply chain issues in the electronics industry can be related to the toilet paper shortages at the beginning of the COVID pandemic. These shortages start off small and escalate in severity, so the earlier they are resolved, the less resources are needed, with the desired result of minimalizing the impact. Ideally, inventory is monitored and managed to avoid shortages, whether it is a resistor or roll of toilet paper, but the reality is that it may eventually be a problem.

The various stages of supply shortages are:

  • Exact specified component is not available
  • Exact equivalent component is not available
  • Different solution is required

Each of these can be illustrated by comparing them to how the general population navigated the toilet paper crisis. Like toilet paper, any substitutions selected should be tested to confirm that they are acceptable alternatives.

Exact Specified Component is not Available

Toilet paper:  Suppose a family always used Brand A as their preferred choice, but when they went to the store, it was out of stock. The store did have every other brand, so they picked up a similarly priced and quality toilet paper. 

Electronics:  A circuit board used several Brand X capacitors that were 1uF, 0603, 10%, 6.3V, X5R capacitors. When attempting to purchase these capacitors, they were out of stock and would not be available again for 6 months. However, several other brands had capacitors available with the same capacitance, performance, footprint, and price. One or more of them are selected as alternates and the circuit board is built.

Exact Equivalent Component is not Available

Toilet Paper:  In the case of toilet paper, not only was Brand A not available, but all of the mid-grade similarly priced toilet papers were also out of stock. However, high-quality more expensive toilet paper, as well as budget toilet paper were available. The lowest risk in this case would be to choose the higher-quality toilet paper, since it would perform better than the originally specified brand. Some potential issues are that it will be more expensive which may not be acceptable. The budget toilet paper may not be desirable but may be good enough for the time being.

Electronics:  Staying with capacitors, perhaps all brands of 1uF, 0603, 10%, 6.3V, X7R capacitors were out of stock. The next option would be to search for a better part alternative. The search turned up several options that plenty of 1uF, 0603 capacitors, but possibly different voltage ratings and temperature specifications (i.e., X5R). The lowest-risk option would be to select a better part. There are several parts available that have higher voltage ratings such as 16V, 25V, and 50V all other specs equal.  The price may have been slightly higher, but acceptable, so that was chosen.  If none of those were available, perhaps a degraded temperature spec such as X5R was acceptable.

Different Solution is Required

Toilet paper:  The situation is getting worse. There is no toilet paper of any brand available either in the store or online, and the family has a one-day supply remaining at home. Something must be done which may involve a short-term and long-term solution. Alternatives are using paper towels, rags, newspaper, a bidet, or others. The bidet may be the chosen alternative solution until the toilet paper crisis is over, but it needs to be ordered and may take 2-4 weeks to arrive. The family decides to use paper towels short-term while waiting for the bidet.

Electronics: Most of the time, alternatives can be found for capacitors, resistors, MOSFETs and diodes.  At times, integrated circuits also have similar parts that can be used with no additional changes. Some integrated circuits are not direct drop-in replacements, so other solutions will be needed. The first step is to check alternate sources such as brokers for availability, and if found, decide whether to use or not. Other possible solutions are to create an interposer board which can contain an equivalent circuit that gets soldered onto the current board or a small circuit redesign. Some of the more complex integrated circuits would need firmware changes and much more redesign; the solution may be to redesign the board and implement new technology.

ACDi has helped many of our customers navigate the ongoing electronics supply chain challenges. While not all shortages can be anticipated, we monitor bills of materials for required parts and suggested last time buys and/or substitutes when possible. When a simple circuit re-design is required, we can also assist with that effort with our team of in-house designers. Any and all suggested changes are approved by our customer prior to implementation. We have helped many of our customers navigate the ongoing electronics supply chain challenges. If you are looking for a partner you can trust to suggest alternatives, replacements or even redesigns of your electronic devices, contact us today.