This month we are going to move away from manufacturing technology and talk about something that is affecting the entire manufacturing industry – the lack of silicon for producing computer chips. Everything from the phone you’re most likely reading this on, to the wireless keyboard I’m typing this on, is comprised of computer chips. We all rely heavily on chips and more specifically semiconductors that make up those chips.

What is the bullwhip effect? 

The demand for silicon is far beyond the current supply and it’s affecting almost every industry causing the bullwhip effect. (I’m going to refrain from any Indiana Jones allusions here.) The bullwhip effect is a phenomenon within manufacturing that shows that distortion in the supply chain can multiply, meaning that small standard errors can compound as you move up the supply chain causing massive shifts in demand. Recent events (i.e., Covid and the shift of work and school at home) have created a massive demand for chips in computers and hardware inside the home. This demand has put stress on the entire supply chain, spiking prices, and generating greater lead times, thus the bullwhip effect.  So, grab your fedora, and let’s dive in -ok, I couldn’t resist.

When did this start?

Despite the once in a century global pandemic. This shortage did not start in 2020 and X never, ever marks the spot. As developing nations have become more developed, the need for more chips in those regions have increased. Economists had starting taking note of the silicon shortages all the way back in 2018.

The hits just keep coming. 

As we have discussed so far, the bullwhip effect has caused a bulk of our silicon shortages. However, a once in a century global pandemic is also more directly to blame. While the United States is returning to business as usual, other countries around the world are still being devastated by the Covid-19 pandemic. North America only makes up a small portion of the total silicon production in the world. Those facilities are currently being slammed with orders that they simply can’t fill. Countries like China and India are still having issues with the virus and are unable to keep up with silicon manufacturing. 

When will things return to normal?

This could be a new norm for a little while. Some companies have announced a push to add to their silicon manufacturing facilities; however, this may take as long as 2 years to finish construction of these new facilities. This could cause more of a bullwhip effect in reverse.  And so, the cycle continues. But if you can look on the bright side, there’s no snakes. At least this time, It didn’t have to be snakes.

In the same vein as last month’s topic (hint: ray tracing) we are going to discuss a type of software that helps engineers save time and money developing hardware.  Computational fluid dynamics or CFD software is similar to ray tracing software in that it allows a computer to simulate the laws of nature, but in this case – it’s simulating a fluid. Specifically, how a fluid reacts in the presence of an outside force. Example – think of a fan in a room. When the fan is off you can’t feel the air. It’s present, but you don’t notice its force. However, when the fan is turned on, suddenly you can direct the air flow and feel its force. This is an example of fluid dynamics. Air acts like fluid in that it moves and flows. CFD software is able to show where areas of high and low fluid pressure exist and since air is a fluid, it can also measure the route air takes through an enclosed area.  

CFD software can be expensive, but using it can substantially reduce prototyping costs. For example, CFD software can be used to help computer designers keep their towers from overheating by illustrating the way air can move inside the framework. It can also help aeronautical engineers develop more efficient wing designs. When designing an airplane wing, engineers will use CFD software to show the high pressure effecting the bottom of the wing, and the low pressure effecting the top of the wing. Automotive companies use CFD software to develop sweet-looking streamlined auto bodies while reducing fluid friction and drag on the frame. It also lets you burn rubber all while getting better gas mileage 

Back in the day, companies had their CFD software handled by an engineer anointed to manage all things CFD. The programs were complicated and also involved quite a bit of coding knowledge for someone to operate. Many computers would also struggle to handle the complex CFD software, which is very dependent on the speed of your computer’s “brain”. 

Today, almost anyone can take an afternoon and a cup of coffee and decipher CFD software. If you don’t want to invest the time, most companies that create CFD software have quick tutorials you can check out on YouTube. Much of the CFD software out there is now browser based so that they can be run remotely on supercomputers. Here at PWI we use CFD software to help us improve the design of our products while we explore the future of using UV light to clean the air in enclosed areas. Purchasing CFD software may be the best way to perfect your designs without the cost of producing multiple prototypes. CFD software may well be your solid answer to a fluid problem.