The Chip Shortage And Us (photography people)


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Oct 21, 2016
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If you have not heard yet, there is a significant shortage in key microchips. This has caused problems for Qualcomm, General Motors and Ford. If you want to check the available facts around this issue, go do your own research. The reason I am posting this in a photographic forum is to look into the question of whether "we" photographers can be affected, and what this might imply to choices we make this year.

Can we be affected?

That much is simple. Yes, we can. But how much? That's where the trouble researching this issue starts. At this point, it is very hard to say. The problem is most obvious looking at the more advanced chips which are produced at the "big" fabrication sites. Notice I say "more advanced" and not "most advanced". The "most" advanced chips, like those we are familiar with from Intel and AMD and Nvidia, are generally in short supply anyway, but so far there has been no word of anything unusual in their supply. The bottleneck is occurring somewhere below that level.

Which and Why?

The chips we are hearing about seem to be something like "the next level down". They are made in "microchip fabrication facilities" (aka "fabs") which are booked in advance and make a run of one type of chip for a while, then switch to another type of chip for a while, and so on. The fabs are in fairly constant use. So a company using those fabs have to estimate how many chips they will need between production runs and make that quantity during the time they have available.

The problem probably happened because of the sudden drop in demand for chips caused by Covid-19. Orders were probably cancelled or reduced while we waited for demand in end products to get back to normal levels. Since this was an unusual situations, mistakes were made regarding stockpiling for when sales picked up again. Clearly, there was not enough stockpiling to cover the re-start of production of cars. So now, key chips are in short supply to complete the construction of Ford and GM cars needed to fill demand. Qualcomm is an industrial supplier to (among other things) cellphone makers, so there might be supply shortages of certain cellphones for a while too.

So What About Photography?

Are key photographic chips made in these fabs? I would expect so, but the only way to know is to disassemble a camera and look at the chips, and the chips might not be marked in a way that indicates their origins. Actually, they are already "hidden" to some degree. Canon, Nikon, Sony and the rest are probably mainly using re-labelled chips. There might be real chip design work being done in "graphics" chips, but even that is not necessarily being done. It might just be differences in programming.

But that is the body. The lenses are probably not that advanced. The first automatic exposure adjustment in cameras was electro-mechanical. It was a photo-cell powering a needle that was mechanically trapped stopping the aperture to stay open at a certain F-stop. Similarly, the first image stabilization was just a set of weights and balances that moved internal lenses swinging around inside a lens body. There was no need for "microchips" for those technologies. So even today, the chips inside lenses are probably not that advanced. So fabricating them might be going on in smaller facilities, and they might be fairly deeply stockpiled.

So what does this imply?

It seems to me (my best guess) is that if you want to buy an advanced camera body and a lens or two, and you have the money to get some of these, then you might want to look first at whether you can get the body, and give it priority. I think that lenses might be left for a lower priority.

Also, cameras and lenses are probably worth prioritizing over camera bags, tripods, light stands and tee-shirts. I would still prioritize sandwiches, no matter how low-tech they might be.

That is just a thought. I could be wrong about a lot of this.
Rather labored speculation. Bigger things keep me--and probably others--awake nights these days.
Besides, with demand for DSLRs tanking, might any possible shortage be averted with lower production? But then your guess is no better than mine...
I'm not planning on buying any cars, computers, or cameras anytime soon, so I doubt it will directly affect me.
eh, i'll order what i want and it'll arrive eventually. if it takes a few extra weeks then no big deal.
eh, i'll order what i want and it'll arrive eventually. if it takes a few extra weeks then no big deal.

Yeah, I'm hoping it turns out "a lot of nothing" too. So far only Ford, GM and Qualcomm reported anything that I would consider "unusual". Actually, I'll narrow that down a bit further. Qualcomm having shortages is not really that big a surprise either. But Ford and GM reducing car production was a surprise. So far, Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, Fiat, etc. haven't had problems. If there are no other announcements like this, say, within February, we could just chalk it up as a fumble by the two of them. Also, both companies are reducing production. So they are not completely out of chips either.
Unlikley it'd affect the photohraphy market too much.

The big issue is with the new 7nm chips, the tech is in a lot of devices and the factories can't make them fast enough with increased demand for consumer electronics. Certainly with AMD the 5000 gen Ryzen processors are selling out as fast as they can make them though a little stock is trickling through now. I've been trying to get a n Nvidia RTX3080 gpu since launch back in November and what little supply is lasting minuites before it's sold out.

Compounding the problem is the rise of cryptocurrency mining, supply issues due to Covid, scalpers and general production issues with 200mm and 300mm wafers.
I work in electronics, specifically testing and repairing all the electronics in our equipment. We make tools used in the semiconductor industry, electron-beam lithography tools and SEM's (scanning electron microscopes) mostly. I've not had any issues obtaining parts except items that are obsolete, something I deal with all the time because one of our product lines is fairly old. We offered a 300mm tool at one time but there was little interest industry wide.

There are literally thousands of different kinds of "chips" that perform many, many different functions but all the comments so far seems to be focusing on large processors which probably aren't in any of our cameras anyway. There is a good chance that anything highly specialized in cameras was designed by the camera manufacturers themselves (or a contract engineering firm) and then made to order by a foundry.

A bigger issue long-term is the continued availability of certain elements like tantalum since much of it is from China.
If there is a market, someone will fill it. They still make vacuum tubes for those of us who like to tinker with old radios.
Things are still vague. Apparently Volkswagen is reporting chip shortages, but I did not hear what the impact will be for them, (I did not research it further because I did not have the time). Sony has mentioned that PlayStation production is being impacted, but again, I did not look further.

DP Review reported that Sony has announced delay of the 35mm 1.4 GM lens, due to "production" problems, but not specifically due to chip availability. Looking back at what I wrote earlier, I would be surprised if this was chip related because, I would not expect the particular chips to be part of this shortage (probably older tech chips in the lens), but as I have been saying, I could be wrong. . . .

"Sony Japan delays release of its FE 35mm F1.4 GM lens, cites 'production reasons'"
Published Feb 9, 2021, by Gannon Burgett for
"Sony Japan delays release of its FE 35mm F1.4 GM lens, cites 'production reasons': Digital Photography Review ("

It still looks largely like the result of bad scheduling on the part of the chip purchasers, reducing orders, due in turn to lack of sales due to the pandemic and not accounting for a surge in demand during their product sales recovery. The duration is of course, "unclear". A very crude guess was "March".
There are lots more components in both cameras and lenses besides electronics that can be effected by supply chain issues. It doesn't have to be a component shortage, it could be as simple as having fewer people available to work in a warehouse causing delays.
This is probably the last post I will make about this topic -- at least I hope so:

1. For what it's worth, there is little doubt in my mind that "an unusual" chip shortage has occurred, at a level lower technology than usual (ie. the Auto Industry level, which is not really as advanced as the home computer CPU level).

2. The exact extent is hard to determine because on multiple levels my attempts to find out more have been unsuccessful. This is largely because companies have been reluctant to release information that may reveal their own errors in judgment and planning.

3. The most open admissions were by GM and Ford in the auto industry -- probably because it would have been impossible to hide the fact that a large number of their employees were laid off due to factory shut-downs or shift reductions. All you had to do is ask the unions to find that stuff out.

4. Many other auto manufacturers were also affected, but apparently to significantly lesser degrees.

5. There is reason to believe that the fault was largely NOT on the part Ford or GM executives -- they actually did not have much choice.

6. Unfortunately, the Texas power disaster has caused the shutting down of fabs in Texas which has added to the problem.

7. The problem will probably be there till around the "3rd quarter", which means as late as the end of August, which is longer than I was hearing before.

8. I did a quick browse through B&H and checked the cameras up to $2,500 US level and things look fairly normal so far. There were only a couple of cameras not currently in stock, which is roughly normal.
Has not disrupted any supplies we sell here at the camera store I work. And I could care less about new cars as I will never buy one.
Saw article that said it took @ 26 weeks to 'make' the chips and when Covid hit China +, those factories shut down. So now that some are open, it is causing a logjam...(?)
I am SO non-techie, but have been an investor of Nividia since it was $100, so read a few articles and I even understand a small amount of the info. :{
Toyota said they have their own stock pile to last a few months, Ford, GM not so much....2-3rd quarter #'s could be low for them...?
My .00000001 worth....
Nvidia just announced they are bringing back a 5 year old, (but popular), graphics card. The new cards have chips that they can't get, the old cards they have an over supply of. Only problem is, I used to buy this card, (1050TI), for $140, now they want, (and are getting), $380!

What's old is new again, it just costs more.
Saw article that said it took @ 26 weeks to 'make' the chips and when Covid hit China +, those factories shut down. So now that some are open, it is causing a logjam...(?)
I am SO non-techie, but have been an investor of Nividia since it was $100, so read a few articles and I even understand a small amount of the info. :{
Toyota said they have their own stock pile to last a few months, Ford, GM not so much....2-3rd quarter #'s could be low for them...?
My .00000001 worth....

I suspect that the 26-week lead time is from when something new (as in new design) is ordered to when it is delivered.

Semiconductor (including "chips") manufacturing is very automated and I don't think manpower issues caused by covid had a significant impact on production. Raw material supply-chain issues most likely had a far bigger impact. Something as simple as a etching agent, used during an interim step, not being available when needed could shut down a whole production line.

I also suspect that some of these problems are caused by a "just in time" mentality. For some reason, bean-counters hate seeing large amounts of raw materials in kept in stock forcing manufacturers to keep very low stock amounts and ordering things just in time to maintain production. That all works great until it doesn't.

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