Scarcity and Precarity in Small Manufacturing

Witnessing this first hand at my work, where scarcity of various electronic components make everything super tedious and force redesigns and production delays for the last 1,5 years – i can totally relate.

thanks for your open words. Much appreciated

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I think this is where the companies that open source their hardware and firmware can win people over - eg Mutable Instruments and TiNRS - if components are unobtainable the community can redesign relatively quickly. Also, with fully available designs it’s very easy to repair their modules yourself. It’s definitely part of my purchasing decisions now…

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I’d like to share a little personal anecdote, the regulator connected to our alternator recently burnt up. It’s all resin encased and thus, electronic trash, unrepairable and unrecyclable.

max_charge

The companies making compatible regulator are now charging 600$ plus, with about 5-6 months of delay. We couldn’t wait that long, pay that much, only so it would die on us again in 5 years. The new models are equally unrepairable. Their diagnostics go only as far as telling you that it needs to be replaced or not.

We looked for a used one but in the end, we ended up replacing the whole thing with a 10$ ceramic reostat.

in hand

I’m not sure where this lands in the repair-reuse scale, but we figured that maybe learning what this thing did, and learn to do away with its automation, might be a net gain after all. The best amount of technology, is often the least amount of technology.

This obviously, doesn’t solve the raspberry pi supply chain issue, but maybe this gives option to someone trying to solve issues by throwing computing at the problem.

installed

Also, like, knobs, I mean… KNOBS. You get it.

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“One Weird Trick Regulator Manufacturers Don’t Want You To Know…”

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Trying to remember where I saw a recent toothbrush teardown that revealed a Cortex M3 STM32 in it or something bonkers like that…

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Reminds me of this single-use digital covid test: Electronic Covid Test Tear Down Shows Frustrating Example Of 1-Time-Use Waste | Hackaday

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As a builder of acoustic instruments who also offers very popular custom preamps for said instruments, I’ve been hit by this as well. I can’t imagine how precarious it must feel for a small manufacturer of primarily electronic instruments.

If anything, it’s increased my hoarding tendencies — if I had only bought 100 of the op amps I use a couple of years ago (something I could easily have afforded and justified, and have done with various other components and parts) then I’d have no problems for the foreseeable future. As it is, I’m stuck with enough for three, maybe four more units, and then I either have to hope that I can either make BJT op amps work in place of the JFETs, redesign the board, or try my luck with some of the shadier suppliers who claim to have a few thousand of them lying around.

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20 characters of yikes.

Thanks for making this post, it’s been really useful for me to consider the impacts this has and will have.

While we work towards a beautiful solar punk future of increasing biodiversity and resilient, caring human systems, it’s important to note the non-linear nature of things: there is huge variance and things will get worse for a time before (hopefully) we can make them better.

In a way we have been living in a world of technological hyper-abundance, fuelled by the just in time delivery of components with historically staggering power.

In terms of physical effort a litre of petrol contains the same energy as someone working hard at manual labour for ~129 hours. (If you paid your petrol minimum wage how much would it cost to drive 100km in your car? L/100km x 129 x min wage. It’s $14,400 for me)

If we think of mental effort these chips and the systems they enable perform tasks that would take inhumanely long time scales for an individual to complete.

Now these willing servants become more scarce we experience the loss of their support and are exposed to the fragility of the system they enabled.

This precarious little ecosystem, which has become so precious to me in the year since I discovered it, sits at the fringes of industrial organisation and as such feels the effects of wider forces first and with unmitigated impact. The canary in the coal mine warning us of a threat before we feel it ourselves.

Tomorrow I will be fixing a 25 year old CRT monitor, built mostly with through hole parts, thinking how this hobby project embodies the smallest personal germination of practices which might become increasingly important.

I am committed to taking better care of my gear and the people involved in making it.

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Thanks for those observations.

And thanks Tehn for the transparency in sharing the reality of the current situation.

If I had more time I would have liked to delve into how this is an indicator of the inevitable imposition of scarcity on those of us who have benefited for generations from global systems that have imposed scarcity and much worse on fellow humans who live “over there.”

Those chickens are coming home to roost, or whatever the metaphor is…. We’re all living in something like Jon Hassell’s Fourth World…

Thanks to a post on lines, I recently heard about solar punk…. It’s a vibe I’ve been feeling for 40 years but didn’t know that it had a name. I always thought of it as Love Punk…

Anyway, so much appreciation for this place and these folks!

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Cory Doctorow published a semi-related article recently, which I really enjoyed. Well… maybe “enjoyed” isn’t quite right, but still…
https://pluralistic.net/2022/06/01/factories-to-condos-pipeline/#stuff-not-money

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Sounds like I should consider a second-hand Teletype if I’m looking to buy one in the next few months.

Thanks for sharing this insight. I work in brewing, but I’m seeing so many echos of my own experience here as well.

On the equipment side, lead times on parts and repairs of things have been wild. We recently had a printer out for ~12 months while waiting on a replacement board for it.

Lead times in general are wild, and across the board quality has become a lot more variable even in standard soft goods (think hoses/gaskets/etc).

Volatility due to climate change on the agricultural side of things has been an issue for a while, but this past years malting barley harvest was big wake up call for a lot of people. Significantly smaller with a lower overall quality has required a lot of creativity on the side of maltsters and has required us as brewers to be more dynamic about how we are handling certain processes. We’re seeing situations like this for almost all ingredients.

Preventative maintenance and extra care / thoughtfulness are more critical than ever.

Very much this. With the changes/crumbling of the supply chain I don’t see how things can return to “normal”.

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I kept wondering about this kind of thing during the absolute onslaught of new synth announcements at Superbooth. How is everyone going to make these things in the current environment? Or are most places designing new products around the current reality?

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To the point of fabricating low-level controller devices like the STM32?

I agree with the above post suggesting we look towards a paradigm shift, but what to when basic parts are unobtanium with no estimates provided because corporations are amassing ten years stock at a time.

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i believe that we’ll keep making instruments no matter how hard it gets to salvage parts. it’s in our nature - art never ends

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No - I dont think hobbyists are able to fabricate stm32s at home - maybe you dont appreciate how much is involved in designing mcus? Even after you’ve designed it the cost to build a fabrication plant and fund a production run is into the billions of pounds so this is beyond the means of most hobbyists. You could google what is involved to gain some perspective on what you are suggesting.

A very easy alternative for the hobbyist (who has access to the schematics, firmware and board designs) is to substitute an alternative mcu - either another stm32, esp32 or even other arm-based mcus. (I have done this and it is pretty easy).

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That’s what i was questioning when it was stated that “if components are unobtainable the community can redesign relatively quickly”.

I don’t need convincing that we aren’t running home fabs anytime soon :slight_smile:

I just don’t where the base components are supposed to come from in that case!

“another stm32”

It’s not like we’re just talking a single implementation or form factor that’s been bought up for years and years of stock.

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If you have any questions on designing and fabricating stm32 I’m happy to try to answer - I used to work fot ST many years ago on the stm32 toolchain (before I left to study medicine).

It’s quite common in electronic design to redesign for alternative parts when some are unobtainable - usually the designer of the consumer device doesnt need to have a microprocessor custom-designed and fabricated as this is a hugely expensive andtime-consuming undertaking. They usually look to see what is available and redesign their product. This is a lot easier if the firmware, schematics etc are available. With modern tools (eagle, kicad, open source toolchains and access to cheap pcb manufacture) this is all easily within reach of the casual hobbyist….

esp32 are available as are other arm-core mcus. You can find small numbers of stm32 as they become available - I’ve picked up quite a few over the last 18 months - I’d be very concerned if I had to rely on supply for a commercial product but for a diy hobbyist there are small numbers availablr here and there.

I’ve also been playing with the new raspberry pi mcu (rp2040 and dev board) that is dirt cheap and easily available - TiNRS are redesigning their wobbler to use it…

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There are still deep shortages – like zero available anywhere on the planet – of the STM32G4A1KEU6 or the STM32G491KEU6 which is the otherwise identical version with no hardware encryption support. This is the main brain of the EMpick. One of the driver chips is also currently unavailable but at least with that one they promise to have stock in a couple of months. There is no information about when the STM parts will be available. This isn’t a problem right at this moment. I do have the development hardware so I’m continuing to work on the code — all things that will have to be done before the first EMpick wakes up and says hello.

If this shortage continues I may release the build without the STM and check as much of the rest of the circuit as I can. However, the STM is still needed before anything can be shipped.

I’m still digesting this situation, still thinking it through. And still looking for at least enough parts to build one or two EMpicks so I can get to testing everything. It’s just insane. I can’t even find one chip, not one single STM32G491K. It’s not like this is some obscure chip. It’s mainstream. It ought to be easily sourced.

This is the situation. It’s not just this one part number, it’s all kinds of such chips. Many small companies are in the same boat. Larger companies with deeper pockets acted earlier and bought up everything, but that stock will be running out too, in 2022. So this could get worse. It is certainly one of the drivers of the economic slowdown, one they aren’t talking about much.”

^^
From a few blogposts of Paul Vo, who worked on the Moog guitar and is working on Wond II, on account of persons completely unable to find what they need.

Sure, a small number over 18 months for a single DIY hobbyist, I wasn’t saying that would be impossible, if i needed one i’d probably cannibalize something :slight_smile:

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