President Biden is convening a virtual summit on Monday to address a critical global shortage of semiconductors — computer chips used in cars, consumer electronics and weapons systems. The gathering will include executives from car, computer and defense companies, along with White House officials.
Arthur Wheaton, an expert on the automotive industry at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, says demand for semiconductor chips among automakers is only going to increase as more electric vehicles are introduced into fleets, and that it may lead to “billions in manufacturing stoppages.”
“The semiconductor chip shortage is an extremely important issue. As more automakers move to electrify their fleets, the higher the demand. These chips are used in cell phones, computers, home ‘Alexa, Google’ smart devices and other consumer goods.
“What elevates the emergency to President Biden’s desk is the impact on the defense and military needs, and the gigantic impact on the economy if billions in manufacturing stoppages from automakers spreads to other industries as well. Like most big problems, it will require time, money and cooperation to address.”
Christopher Ober, a professor of materials engineering at Cornell, says the semiconductor shortage can be traced back, in part, to cutbacks in production at the start of the pandemic and that more sophisticated microprocessors have been less affected.
"In part, the shortage stems from cutbacks made to production from the start of the pandemic and now that production is increasing, knowing how many items to produce and how many to order is complicated. This can lead to shortages of items that were readily available before the pandemic. Chips like sophisticated microprocessors are not as affected but that does not help build a car if you don't have the simpler chips."
Ron Olson, director of operations for Cornell's Nanoscale facility, has worked for more than 32 years in industrial fabrication operations, and process and device development. Olson says that closures of semiconductor plants and high demand for semiconductors in electronics at the beginning of the pandemic exacerbated the shortage, and that plants have limits to how much they can catch up to meet demand.
"Because most of the semiconductor plants have a limit of WPH (wafers per hour) there are only so many chips that can be manufactured per day, because of limited Equipment throughput (ETH)."