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


When we look back at the start of the 2020s, there’s no question that it will represent an unprecedented period in our lives. The terrifying global pandemic, with its ensuing (and necessary) shutdowns of nations and economies worldwide to try to combat a deadly virus, has resulted in repercussions that no analyst could have forecast, and has exposed the precarious balance of our manufacturing logistics and commercial supply chains.

One highly visible ripple effect can be seen in the chip and component shortages that reared up in a big way this year. Anyone who’s been shopping for cars lately is aware of the elevated prices of new and used vehicles alike. A big part of the cause? Manufacturers can’t get microcontroller chips needed to complete auto assembly, so unfinished new cars have been stockpiling at factories, their completion stalled until the manufacturers can get those outstanding parts. Early estimates say this will cost the industry $110 billion in 2021.

This same situation has, to differing degrees, affected gaming consoles, televisions, and other consumer electronics that use silicon chips — like the dev boards that we makers love to program and use in our projects. Many popular boards have been impossible to buy for much of the year. Good luck finding a micro:bit or various flavors of Raspberry Pi from most resellers right now. Certain Nvidia Jetson dev kits are still unavailable as well. The scarcity continues through much of the boards lineup; when you can find something specific, you may also find that the selling price has been boosted, sometimes by four times above what it’s listed for. (We even made the decision to list current market prices in our included “Guide to Boards” insert this year, as the MSRP is so far off in many cases.)

Some chip makers are struggling with this more than others, and some of their supply chain troubles have been compounded by unrelated and unexpected factory shutdowns caused by Covid, fires, or adverse weather. NXP’s manufacturing plant in Austin closed down during the unusual Texas freeze early this year; one maker-focused electronics company says that they currently can’t manufacture any NXP chip-based boards. ST Micro’s STM32 is another popular chip that’s just not available anywhere right now.

STMicro and NXP chips, two of the many you might not be able to find this year.

The root of these shortages is multi-faceted. Experts say that much of it started with the brief pause in consumer demand caused by the 2020 lockdown, followed by demand suddenly ballooning as a home-bound global community sought entertainment and activity while keeping indoors. Manufacturers, initially trying to avoid an expensive buildup of components, closed their factories that spring; once the demand came back, many struggled to reopen due to Covid. Along with that, the pandemic also ruptured most parts of the global shipping pipeline. Containers are in short supply, often unable to make return trips to active ports. Container ships themselves have backed up at busy ports at record levels. Labor shortages have made it hard to find truck drivers. Not only is it slow and hard for consumers to get their finished goods, it’s just as hard for the manufacturers to get the raw materials needed to make those goods.

By this point, much has been written about the chip situation (we recommend Nilay Patel’s interview with Harvard professor Willy Shih for insights into not just the shortages, but a fascinating explanation of how silicon chips themselves are manufactured). But what are makers themselves doing about it? Well, as the community is known for, they’re being resourceful. They’re redesigning their projects to use chips they can access. They’re digging into storage closets to find their unused and forgotten chips from past projects. They’re joking (or are they?) on Twitter about yanking the harder-to find chips from PCBs to use in new endeavors. One company, OKdo, has even built a recycling program for Raspberry Pi computers, renewing previously used boards and putting them back into circulation.

Analysts say the chip shortages may last until 2023, so buckle up for the ride.

Wait, there are new chips too?

Raspberry Pi’s surprise new RP2040 chip is one component that you can get in 2021.

In the face of the chip shortages, the biggest board news in 2021 has been the surprise release of a new microcontroller chip designed by Raspberry Pi, the RP2040. This turned heads everywhere; be sure to read our interview with Eben Upton about how it came to be, along with our primer on using its PIO pins (in Make: Vol 79) and a look at the sudden and expansive number of boards that are powered by the RP2040.

Arduino’s new Nicla Sense ME board is packed with Bosch environmental sensors.

We’re also seeing the continuation of board makers moving into professional and industrial-grade solutions, covered in part in our “Mighty Modules” article (in Make: Vol 79). This fall, Arduino continued their own foray into this space, adding a few new products to its Arduino Pro line, including the high-power Portenta H7 Lite and the diminutive Nicla Sense ME boards, along with machine-control and edge-control carrier boards. And the power of FPGA boards is getting cheaper and easier to use, with boards like Seeed Studios’ Spartan Edge Accelerator.

Adafruit continues to produce a staggering variety of new boards, both as standalones and as purpose-built devices, all with the creative, surprising, and useful touches that have brought so many to admire the company. Their Feather form factor has become another industry standard, used by numerous manufacturers like SparkFun, Particle, and Wilderness Labs. But it’s the software side of the company that might be the most impressive this year, with active updates to CircuitPython (up to version 7.0.0; now supported by over 230 boards, and even TI calculators) and new releases like their simple-to-use IoT platform WipperSnapper.

Radios

On the board-connectivity side, this year we’ve finally seen LoRa start to push into more mainstream uses in the U.S. It’s getting easier to access LoRaWan networks like Helium, or even to roll your own access points with products from boardmakers like TTGo. One thing that may pose a challenge to deep LoRa adoption is the arrival of free IoT cellular data options. The biggest news in this space came this year from Particle, who announced a new free-for-100-devices tier to their cellular platform. Depending on the scale (and location) of your project, you’ll want to weigh which type of connectivity works best for you.

What’s Next?

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

Moving into 2022, we expect for RISC-V to emerge further; we’re eager to see more processors and boards using this open source architecture (including the still-underway BeagleV from BeagleBoard). Edge AI is taking center stage and we should be seeing new devices emerge with increased power for accelerated onboard AI processing. And we’ll likely see increased prices and more creative solutions to these dang chip shortages, until things eventually settle back to normal. Hopefully soon.



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