Like most of us, I’ve been living in a start/stop, forward/backwards world for the last year and a few months. I can’t tell if the pandemic is closer to being over or if the light at the end of the tunnel is just another oncoming train. I can’t tell if we’re any closer to a “new normal”, if there will be a “new normal” or if the concept of “normal” even exists anymore. Or maybe I’m just asleep and in the middle of an extended dream sequence. Hard to say.
That being said, I still want to give you something to read here, so I called on future Duane to look back from the year 2031 and let us all know what’s going on. He should know what happened. Take it away future Duane.
No. We didn’t invent time travel in 2031. And I’m not going to tell you to sell Dogecoin at $1,206.51 or to buy NewMars at $17.00. I was instructed to stay away from such timeline disrupting activities. What I will do, however, is contrast the supply chain world of today (my today – May 2031) with that of May 2021. The funny thing is that this is pretty easy to do, even without looking back through the last ten years. Every decade is pretty much the same.
I can remember back in 2021 when a simple microcontroller could be listed as in stock, but by the time I put an order in, someone had swooped in and cleaned out the stock, none to be seen again for 120 days. (Engineer extraordinaire Chris Gammell coined the term “Swooped” in this context in a Twitter post on May 4, 2021) Everything was in flux and no one could predict when normal would return. Well, I don’t need to predict. I was there and I saw it unfold.
For those of you still in 2021, it does look grim, and it will be for a while. One of the bigger problems then was in shipping capacity. With so much of the global component supply being dependent upon piggybacking on passenger air travel and 80% of passenger flights not flying because of the pandemic, all of those components needed to be put on ships in big shipping containers.
Guess what? There weren’t enough shipping containers to meet the increased demand and there weren’t enough dock workers and dock slots to load and unload it all. Further, due to the pandemic, steel was also in short supply, so it wasn’t easy to spin up the container supply. There was, however, a glut of containers in late 2022 and we ran out of places to store the empties. (Sometimes you can’t win).
International air travel didn’t really come back until 2022. Even then, it didn’t reach and pass pre-pandemic levels until 2024. Of course, in 2024, demand for seats jumped so fast that we ended up with a severe shortage of jetliners and pilots. The follow-up recession did mitigate that problem though and give the jet building industry time to catch up, but by the time there were enough jets and pilots, physical VR was starting to put the heat back on the travel industry. (See my previous parenthetical)
Despite the slow return of air travel, the most severe electronics supply chain problems lightened up by spring of 2022. The industry adapts. Much of that adaptation came by further shrinking component sizes. If you can produce a 50-pin microcontroller in a 2 mm X 2 mm wafer level chip scale form-factor, why would you also produce it in a larger format that requires ten times the silicon and a dozen other materials suppliers for packaging. It takes too long to spin up wafer fab capacity, so just stuff more parts on the same number of wafers.
Design and manufacturing resumed its boom in 2022 with even more automation in motor vehicles, further explosions in robotics, the IoT and compact wireless industries. The downside to the dramatic shrink in component sizes was a pretty severe disruption in the PCB fab industry. What took 16 square inches in 2021, could be placed in a single square inch or less just a few years later.
Looking back, on your decade, we had three booms, two recessions and a whole lot of change. We did make it through all of that. Not all electronics manufacturers did, but we are still here and are still building great products for a lot of amazing engineers. As I used to say back in 2021, engineers design the future and we build it for them. Still doing that.
Future Duane Benson
It’s good to be out of the ’20s, but now I have to deal with the ’30s