Covid Shows: the fragility of the semiconductor industry


Designing an iPhone or a virtual reality headset? 3D printing technology, or creating the first biosynthetic organism? Easy-breezy!

It seemed that even the impossible can be possible in America. After the Covid pandemic disruption in the United States, experts identified their vulnerabilities — it is impossible to quickly produce equipment without microchips of their own production.

The Respiratory Mask Story

2020, America needs medical masks. And one of the entrepreneurs in the field of software, Lloyd Armbrust decides to open his simple production. He founded Armbrust American, a US manufacturer of surgical masks and respirators. As part of his impulsive project, Ambrust spent millions building a mask factory in Texas to meet the demand. But the shortage of chips immediately made itself felt:

  • Ambrust has become a hostage to Chinese chips. In a 7-foot machine armed with two pairs of sharp steel scissors that cuts and attaches the ear loops of a surgical mask, the microscopic sensor suddenly fails. This component costs only $7, but it is not produced in the United States, so the company had to wait weeks for the arrival of the sensor from abroad.

  • Armbrust American also had to ship most of its machinery from Asia and hire a translator to decode the less-than-complete documentation, usually written in Chinese. Some machines, which usually travel to much closer factories, arrived damaged in transit.

  • And after a failed attempt to use software to monitor and automate production, Armbrust was also forced to temporarily halt production. The reason is that Chinese suppliers of the machine’s onboard controllers wouldn’t allow deep enough access to the data. 

Are there any improvements?

Regretfully, no. Stories like this aren’t just happening with Armbrust. The automotive industry is probably the most unlucky with the pandemic:

  • General Motors announced this month that it will suspend production at eight of its 15 assembly plants in North America over the next two weeks. Including those that make the best-selling pickup, the Chevrolet Silverado.

  • Within the next two weeks, Ford will stop producing pickups at its Kansas City assembly plant. It will also cut shifts at two truck factories in Dearborn, Michigan, and Louisville, Kentucky.

Previously, Toyota, Nissan, Audi, Subaru’s Gunma factory in Japan, Daimler, and BMW announced production cuts due to a lack of microcircuits.

What should we do?

To build your own microchip production is long-term and challenging. But it is wrong to stop halfway. 

In 2021, Google announced that the next flagship phones — the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro, due out this fall — will be powered by a custom-built processor named Tensor. It has been developed over the past four years with input from machine learning and artificial intelligence experts. By building its own mobile chip, Google is going deeper into the complex world of the chip supply chain. All for the sake of creating its own system and technological progress.

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