Boards Recap: From No Chips to New Chips, 2021 Has Been the Craziest Yr

Once we look again at first of the 2020s, there’s no query that it’ll characterize an unprecedented interval in our lives. The terrifying world pandemic, with its ensuing (and vital) shutdowns of countries and economies worldwide to attempt to fight a lethal virus, has resulted in repercussions that no analyst might have forecast, and has uncovered the precarious stability of our manufacturing logistics and industrial provide chains.

One extremely seen ripple impact will be seen within the chip and part shortages that reared up in a giant method this yr. Anybody who’s been looking for vehicles currently is conscious of the elevated costs of latest and used autos alike. An enormous a part of the trigger? Producers can’t get microcontroller chips wanted to finish auto meeting, so unfinished new vehicles have been stockpiling at factories, their completion stalled till the producers can get these excellent components. Early estimates say this may price the trade $110 billion in 2021.

This similar state of affairs has, to differing levels, affected gaming consoles, televisions, and different client electronics that use silicon chips — just like the dev boards that we makers like to program and use in our tasks. Many common boards have been unimaginable to purchase for a lot of the yr. Good luck discovering a micro:bit or varied flavors of Raspberry Pi from most resellers proper now. Sure Nvidia Jetson dev kits are nonetheless unavailable as properly. The shortage continues by a lot of the boards lineup; when you could find one thing particular, you may additionally discover that the promoting value has been boosted, typically by 4 occasions above what it’s listed for. (We even made the choice to record present market costs in our included “Information to Boards” insert this yr, because the MSRP is to date off in lots of instances.)

Some chip makers are scuffling with this greater than others, and a few of their provide chain troubles have been compounded by unrelated and surprising manufacturing unit shutdowns brought on by Covid, fires, or adversarial climate. NXP’s manufacturing plant in Austin closed down through the uncommon Texas freeze early this yr; one maker-focused electronics firm says that they at the moment can’t manufacture any NXP chip-based boards. ST Micro’s STM32 is one other common chip that’s simply not accessible anyplace proper now.

STMicro and NXP chips, two of the various you won’t have the ability to discover this yr.

The basis of those shortages is multi-faceted. Specialists say that a lot of it began with the transient pause in client demand brought on by the 2020 lockdown, adopted by demand all of the sudden ballooning as a home-bound world neighborhood sought leisure and exercise whereas protecting indoors. Producers, initially attempting to keep away from an costly buildup of elements, closed their factories that spring; as soon as the demand got here again, many struggled to reopen attributable to Covid. Together with that, the pandemic additionally ruptured most components of the worldwide delivery pipeline. Containers are briefly provide, typically unable to make return journeys to lively ports. Container ships themselves have backed up at busy ports at report ranges. Labor shortages have made it exhausting to seek out truck drivers. Not solely is it sluggish and exhausting for customers to get their completed items, it’s simply as exhausting for the producers to get the uncooked supplies wanted to make these items.

By this level, a lot has been written concerning the chip state of affairs (we suggest Nilay Patel’s interview with Harvard professor Willy Shih for insights into not simply the shortages, however an enchanting clarification of how silicon chips themselves are manufactured). However what are makers themselves doing about it? Nicely, because the neighborhood is understood for, they’re being resourceful. They’re redesigning their tasks to make use of chips they will entry. They’re digging into storage closets to seek out their unused and forgotten chips from previous tasks. They’re joking (or are they?) on Twitter about yanking the harder-to discover chips from PCBs to make use of in new endeavors. One firm, OKdo, has even constructed a recycling program for Raspberry Pi computer systems, renewing beforehand used boards and placing them again into circulation.

Analysts say the chip shortages could final till 2023, so buckle up for the journey.

Wait, there are new chips too?

Raspberry Pi’s shock new RP2040 chip is one part that you just can get in 2021.

Within the face of the chip shortages, the largest board information in 2021 has been the shock launch of a brand new microcontroller chip designed by Raspberry Pi, the RP2040. This turned heads all over the place; be sure you learn our interview with Eben Upton about the way it got here to be, together with our primer on utilizing its PIO pins (in Make: Vol 79) and a take a look at the sudden and expansive variety of boards which are powered by the RP2040.

Arduino’s new Nicla Sense ME board is full of Bosch environmental sensors.

We’re additionally seeing the continuation of board makers transferring into skilled and industrial-grade options, lined partly in our “Mighty Modules” article (in Make: Vol 79). This fall, Arduino continued their very own foray into this house, including a couple of new merchandise to its Arduino Professional line, together with the high-power Portenta H7 Lite and the diminutive Nicla Sense ME boards, together with machine-control and edge-control provider boards. And the ability of FPGA boards is getting cheaper and simpler to make use of, with boards like Seeed Studios’ Spartan Edge Accelerator.

Adafruit continues to supply a staggering number of new boards, each as standalones and as purpose-built gadgets, all with the inventive, shocking, and helpful touches which have introduced so many to admire the corporate. Their Feather type issue has turn into one other trade customary, utilized by quite a few producers like SparkFun, Particle, and Wilderness Labs. Nevertheless it’s the software program aspect of the corporate that could be essentially the most spectacular this yr, with lively updates to CircuitPython (as much as model 7.0.0; now supported by over 230 boards, and even TI calculators) and new releases like their simple-to-use IoT platform WipperSnapper.


On the board-connectivity aspect, this yr we’ve lastly seen LoRa begin to push into extra mainstream makes use of within the U.S. It’s getting simpler to entry LoRaWan networks like Helium, and even to roll your individual entry factors with merchandise from boardmakers like TTGo. One factor which will pose a problem to deep LoRa adoption is the arrival of free IoT mobile knowledge choices. The most important information on this house got here this yr from Particle, who introduced a brand new free-for-100-devices tier to their mobile platform. Relying on the dimensions (and placement) of your venture, you’ll wish to weigh which kind of connectivity works finest for you.

What’s Subsequent?

The BeagleV StarLight board went out to beta testers this yr; a brand new variation will probably be coming in 2022.

Shifting into 2022, we anticipate for RISC-V to emerge additional; we’re desperate to see extra processors and boards utilizing this open supply structure (together with the still-underway BeagleV from BeagleBoard). Edge AI is taking middle stage and we needs to be seeing new gadgets emerge with elevated energy for accelerated onboard AI processing. And we’ll doubtless see elevated costs and extra inventive options to those dang chip shortages, till issues ultimately settle again to regular. Hopefully quickly.

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