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Embedded Engineering Expertise – countering the problems of chip shortage.


27th October - Valencia.

The lack of supply of semiconductors has disrupted industries globally throughout 2021, and the global chip shortage shows no signs of coming to an end.

The shortage has been prompted by the Covid-19 pandemic and the surge in demand for consumer electronics as more staff worked remotely or ‘home schooled’.  It has meant a growth in the purchase of new laptops and servers, and according to the Linley Group the severity of the 2021 shortage should not be underestimated.

As sales in cars dwindled, so chip production moved over to consumer electronics to fill the gap, but still supplies are not enough to meet demand. The automotive industry has been hit particularly hard, with production lines around the world having to close for weeks at a time due to a lack of components.

The Far East is the major global producer of semiconductors. Last year, Taiwan dominated the global market share for semiconductor contract manufacturing, accounting for more than 60 percent of global revenue. (US produces just 10%). Further disruption to its supply chains through other factors other than the pandemic, e.g. drought, has meant semiconductor production, particularly for automotive, has dried up.  With demand likely to continue to increase as more industries undergo digital transformation, chip makers and governments are working to build more capacity into supply chains.

However, building new production facilities and changing priorities in chip manufacture takes time to get up and running, so it is expected that supply will not catch-up with demand until late 2022. In the meantime many development teams are looking for solutions to fill the gap.

New inspiring ideas from Embedded Engineering are offering quicker and more cost effective strategies to counter the chip shortage disruption.


Innovative Engineering design strategies

While some companies have made the decision to slow down or even stop development until this crisis is averted, many cunning, resourceful engineering teams are hacking their way to the new world of designing with procurement at the top of their minds. Of course, design for manufacturing has always included taking into account component availability and pricing etc. However this is commonly an after-thought. Perform designs first, then worry about component availability, preferred suppliers, pricing and supply chain resilience later.


1. Component alternatives

One tactic involves selecting components which have a close alternative. For example designing three footprints for a single component. Although painful, embedded in this approach is the implicit requirement that there are alternatives for the chosen component that have similar electrical connectivity.

Using a redesign of components to accommodate availability, cost and importance could also be useful.

Bucking the trend, as usual, Tesla is weathering the global chip shortage by rewriting its vehicle software to support alternative chips. The shortage has upended the auto industry at a time of historic demand for new cars, leading to factory shutdowns, longer waiting times, and higher prices.

“We were able to substitute alternative chips, and then write the firmware in a matter of weeks,” CEO Elon Musk said. “It’s not just a matter of swapping out a chip; you also have to rewrite the software.”

This approach has helped Tesla maintain high levels of production, delivering over 200,000 vehicles to customers over the course of the last three months. 


2. Re-Configuring Microcontrollers using FPGA

Scott Casper Senior Director of Sales at Gowin Semis, points out that the reason for the lack of devices which is causing major disruption to the supply chain, and thus manufacturing, is the microcontroller. Microcontrollers are at the heart of embedded systems (from washing machines to cars).  As he states, ‘These devices are sprinkled all over the electronics of a car, from the power engine to the infotainment (radio) controls, to safety, control, and entertainment portions of the automobile. Without these microcontrollers, automobile and electronics production, and supply diminish. Therefore, what alternatives do engineers and supply chain managers really have?’

Since microcontrollers are essentially executing logic commands to perform an operation, an alternative to microcontrollers could be a Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA). An FPGA is an integrated circuit made up of a matrix of configurable logic blocks. Therefore, by configuring the FPGA, you can essentially perform the same operations as a microcontroller. 

An FPGA can replace a microcontroller’s simple operation by programming combinatorial logic or a state machine in the configurable logic blocks.

There are inherent advantages to using an FPGA over a microcontroller. For an embedded design engineer, these advantages can help achieve cost and performance targets. Operations in an FPGA are faster to execute than lines of code. And you can also create separate circuits in the configurable logic blocks to run operations in parallel. A microcontroller can’t do this. 


3. Having a coherent Hypervisor /Container strategy

Blackberry is one of the companies that relies on a coherent hypervisor strategy in both reducing manufacturers’ vulnerability to uncertainties in the silicon supply chain and to enable skilled personnel to focus on innovation and rapid development of high-value projects.

A hypervisor enables system designers to consolidate diverse guests with different reliability, safety and security requirements on a single SoC, as well as to offload a good deal of the work required to adapt a system to specific chips and even chip revisions onto the hypervisor design and configuration.

Hardware abstraction provided by a hypervisor offers manufacturers more flexibility in their choice of silicon: insurance against chip shortages and price fluctuations, and it allows them to port legacy systems onto new hardware and run them alongside their latest offerings. A hypervisor can also offload the time-consuming headaches of dealing with functionally equivalents of non-identical chips, new chip variants and revisions from staff.

Whilst in an embedded Linux development environment, containers are much more convenient and versatile than virtual machines. A developer can create a container and deploy it to various systems, including their local embedded development environment, or target embedded hardware. For manufacturers working with embedded Linux, containers can help alleviate the struggle over a chip shortage by providing a flexible application deployment solution across chipsets, emulators, and devices.


4. The All in One Embedded Software Stack

Another new innovation has been developed by Segger Microcontroller in Germany, who have launched an all-in-one embedded software stack that they says will help address the chip shortage. It includes RTOS, file system, communications, security and compression. This allows developers using ARM and RISC-V based microcontrollers to easily move between a thousand different hardware platforms as it removes dependencies on vendors, vendor-specific toolchains, and vendor-specific software libraries and also minimizes other risks that can occur independently of the chip shortage in the development process.


How to access the expertise

Whilst there is no getting away from the problems that presents itself in the worldwide chip shortage, innovative strategies in Embedded Engineering are helping to keep development and production from stopping altogether. This requires highly skilled embedded engineering expertise being available to maximise the initiatives. In addition, there is also a well-known skill shortage particularly in finding the right type of Embedded Engineers. To find the right skills needs professionalism in accessing top quality engineers from across the globe. Experts like CIS have spent over 20 years finding and placing highly skilled engineers in advanced electronic projects and so they may provide the exact skills necessary to innovate your next project without feeling the slowdown caused by a lack of semiconductors.

To make sure you can negotiate through the chip shortage, contact CIS on info@cis-ee.com to find the right skills to enable you to complete your next project.