December 4, 2022

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Tired of me whining about computer chips and how important they are? Too bad.

For a variety of reasons, the lack of chips is limiting production of everything from cars to video game consoles to airplanes (?!). Several major automakers, including Ford and Volkswagen, have slowed or temporarily stopped production because they couldn’t get the computer chips they needed.

Let me explain what happens, how those chip hiccups affect what we buy, and offer some advice on what people can do.

As I wrote on Friday, computer chips are the essential electronic brain or digital memory in jet fighters, satellites, smartphones, refrigerators and much more. Because computer chips are complicated to manufacture, it is difficult for factories to react quickly when demand suddenly increases or decreases.

That became a problem during the pandemic. The dramatic surge in purchases of some types of electronics, including laptops, printers, and video game consoles, made it difficult for companies to have enough materials and manufacturing capacity to keep up. Because of this, it may have been harder or more expensive than expected to buy a computer for your child’s school or a webcam to work from home.

But the shortage that first appeared in consumer electronics has spread to other goods.

The New York Times reporters wrote about the difficulty that automakers had all of the computer chips they needed. When a brief slowdown in auto sales at the start of the pandemic led to a surge in sales, automakers and their chip suppliers were surprised. Some chip manufacturers had already shifted their focus to the electronics industry.

The shortage of auto chips has now caught the attention of government officials and chip makers are struggling to respond. However, it can take many months for a chip to move from the raw material to the end product.

The pain of automakers also falls on us. It might get tougher to find the model you want or to buy it at a price you can stand.

And now, maybe, the chip shortage that first hit electronics and then spread to automobiles will flow back into electronics. Stephen Baker, who follows the consumer hardware industry for research firm NPD Group, told me that chip scarcity was “a big deal”. He said it probably wouldn’t get any easier to find the electronics that were already in high demand.

For buyers, I will pass on the wisdom of my colleagues: be patient. You may need to look around. And maybe try not to damage anything important as it may be harder than you expect to find a replacement. (I joked with a coworker about wrapping my smartphone in bubble wrap. Maybe I wasn’t kidding?)

Let me ask one overarching question: are our supply chains too fragile?

Last year there were shortages of high quality medical masks, computer chips, toilet paper and much more. Perhaps this crisis is an opportunity to rethink the wisdom of having a vast global network of parts and small quantities of products – both of which leave little room for unpredictability.

We already saw the risks, but there were simply too many cost benefits to abandon our just-in-time manufacturing and retailing economy. Perhaps this calculation will change. As we’ve seen this year, this means that if there is an inevitable major disruption, it is at the mercy of the cascading effects of supply gulps.

I asked Andrew Cunningham of Wirecutter, the product recommendation site for the New York Times, to come up with suggestions for video game fans looking for hard-to-find game consoles and gaming-specific PCs. His tips have the same manic energy as advice to people trying to find coronavirus vaccines:

Anything video game related, be it on a PC or a new console like a PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series X, is hard to find. Games were increasingly popular during the pandemic, and video game-oriented PCs and consoles also rely on more advanced chips offered by fewer vendors.

If you’re buying a new model for PlayStation or Xbox and don’t want to resort to paid scalpers, patience is a virtue. Call the local retail stores near you to see what days they get new shipments.

The store tracking website is clunky, but it can notify you when consoles are available in online stores. The Wario64 Twitter account also monitors such things – as well as sales for all kinds of games and accessories. It’s still difficult to find consoles this way, but it’s your best bet.

When it comes to gaming PCs, the popular belief is that it is cheaper to put processors and graphics cards together than buying pre-built gaming setups from companies like Dell. That advice doesn’t apply right now because the best processors and graphics cards are so hard to find – or expensive when you can get them.

If you can now delay buying video game equipment, do it! AMD and Nvidia, which make most of the graphics cards and chips for PlayStation and Xbox consoles, assume that the supply problems will last at least until this summer. Then it might be a little easier – and cheaper – to buy.

Paul, a retired racing greyhound, is still getting used to winter. He may look a little strange in his warm hat and clothes, but at least he’s not cold.

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