A close up image of a CPU socket and motherboard laying on the table.
Narumon Bowonkitwanchai | Moment | Getty Images
A chip shortage that started as consumers stocked up on personal computers and other electronics during the Covid-19 pandemic now threatens to snarl car production around the world.
On Tuesday, GM said that it would extend production cuts in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico until the middle of March. They join a long list of major automakers, including Ford, Honda and Fiat Chrysler, which have warned investors or slowed vehicle production because of the chip shortage.
But it’s not just the automotive industry that’s struggling to get enough semiconductors to build their products. AMD and Qualcomm, which sell chips to most of the top electronics firms, have noted the shortage in recent weeks. Sony blamed the chip shortage for why it’s so hard to get a PlayStation 5 game console.
Chips are likely to remain in short supply in coming months as demand remains higher than ever. The Semiconductor Industry Association said in December that global chip sales would grow 8.4% in 2021 from 2020’s total of $433 billion. That’s up from 5.1% growth between 2019 and 2020 — a notable jump, given how large the absolute numbers are.
Semiconductors are in short supply because of strong demand for electronics, shifting business models in the semiconductor world that created a bottleneck among outsourced chip factories, and effects from the U.S. trade war with China that started under former President Trump.
The Covid-19 pandemic has spurred demand for consumer electronics.
The first wave involved people buying PCs, monitors and other gear for working or going to school remotely. Then, last fall, home entertainment gadgets like game consoles, TVs, smartphones and and tablets started flying off the shelves.
Living room with a Sony PlayStation 5 home video game console and DualSense controller alongside a television, taken on Novemebr 3, 2020.
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PC sales were up 4.8% in 2020 to 275 million units, with over 10% growth in the holiday season, according to Gartner data. That reversed a years-long decline, and is the highest annual growth in the PC market since 2010.
Other gadgets sold well, too. The Consumer Tech Association, an American trade group, said that 2020 was the biggest year on record with nearly $442 billion in retail sales revenue, and is projecting big demand for game consoles, headphones, and smart home products in 2021.
All these devices include a ton of chips — not just the central processor which can cost tens or hundreds of dollars, but also less expensive little chips for controlling the display, or managing power, or operating a 5G modem.
“The current chip shortage all starts with the unprecedented demand for personal computers and peripherals as the globe worked and attended school from home,” said Patrick Moorhead, founder of Moor Insights, a firm that studies the semiconductor industry.
Electronic industry giants that have reported record sales say that they could’ve been even better if there was enough supply. Apple, which recently reported a blowout $111 billion quarter, told analysts it didn’t have enough supply of its new iPhones to meet demand. CEO Tim Cook told Reuters that “semiconductors are very tight.”
AMD CEO Lisa Su, which makes the processor at the heart of Sony’s and Microsoft‘s new consoles, said last month that it expects shortages through the first half of the year, at least. “The industry does need to increase the overall capacity levels,” Su said.
The shortage is highlighting a structural change in the semiconductor industry. Many of the top semiconductor companies are now “fabless,” which means that they only design the chips and the technology in them. Other companies, known as foundries, are largely contracted to actually make the chips.
The foundries are run by companies like TSMC in Taiwan or Samsung in South Korea — and as it turns out, they were already making chips as fast as they could. If a company cut orders in the early days of the pandemic, they had to get back in line.