Fri, September 24, 2021

international

Semiconductor shortage buffets Japanese companies


Amid the increasingly serious global shortage of semiconductors, automakers have been forced to reduce their output or postpone the release of new models. The repercussions are being felt amid a wide range of products, including home appliances, computers and telecommunication devices.

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As if preying on companies’ fears, counterfeit semiconductors have been appearing more and more on the market.

■ Counterfeit chips

Oki Engineering Co., based in Nerima Ward, Tokyo, launched a service in early June to check whether semiconductors are genuine. It now receives inquiries every month about whether client companies can trust certain products.

Semiconductors have been brought to the firm, mainly by electronic machinery makers, sometimes numbering in the thousands in just one batch.

Oki Engineering staff pick up the semiconductors, which measure one to three millimeters on each side, using sucker-like devices designed exclusively for this purpose, and closely examine them under a microscope.

They confirm whether there are suspicious elements in the corporate logos and serial numbers on the surface, and also check circuit patterns inside them with X-ray machines, comparing them with legitimate semiconductors.

About 30% of the semiconductors they have checked have proved to be of poor quality. They included old models deemed to have been produced more than 10 years ago, and secondhand ones that were likely removed from discarded home appliances.

According to Oki Engineering, a sizable number of the faulty products were counterfeit. For example, some had proper casings but were empty inside, while others used major manufacturers’ logos without permission.

Counterfeit or poor-quality semiconductor chips are not a new phenomenon, but the problem rapidly became pronounced as the semiconductor shortage intensified.

The semiconductors in question are believed to mainly come from China, South Korea and Southeast Asia, and they are mainly traded on the internet. In many cases, they are bought and delivered by trading companies that received orders for semiconductors from client manufacturers but were unable to procure proper ones.

Problematic semiconductors are directly installed in such consumer products as drive recorders in cars, facial massagers and electronic cigarettes. After being sold, some of these products have failed to work from the outset.

There are also rare situations in which problematic chips could cause products to catch fire.

■ Race to obtain goods

Large electronics stores in Tokyo feature many signs these days telling customers that they will have to wait for the delivery of such products as telephones, cameras and printers. Unable to procure semiconductors, makers have reduced their output of such products, hence the delays.

In early August, Honda Motor Co. suspended the production of fully assembled cars at its Suzuka Factory in Mie Prefecture for five days. Nissan Motor Co. postponed the release of its new electric vehicle Ariya from the middle of this year to winter 2021.

In China, where consumer spending recovered early among major economies, cars fresh off production lines are in short supply because of the shortage of semiconductors. As a result, the number of cars sold there in June fell 12.4% from a year ago.

Reduced output of cars and home appliances also affects material manufacturing industries, such as steelmakers and nonferrous metal makers.

In a composite index (CI) of business conditions in May, which the Cabinet Office announced on July 7, the coinciding index indicating the current economic situation fell 2.6 points to 92.7, the first decline in three months. The CI is calculated with a base of 100 in 2015.

Demand for semiconductors has grown rapidly and in tandem with the spread of teleworking amid the novel coronavirus crisis. Since autumn last year, new car sales in North America and other major markets have rapidly recovered.

As a result, companies in a wide range of business sectors are waging a fierce battle to obtain semiconductors.

In March this year, Renesas Electronics Corp., a major semiconductor manufacturer, had a fire break out at its Naka Factory in Ibaraki Prefecture, and it took about four months for factory operations to fully resume. This further exacerbated the shortage of semiconductor products at home and abroad.

Even if a manufacturer aims to increase its output, it takes about a year from when the construction of a new factory is green-lit to when it starts production. There are several hundred manufacturing processes involved in making semiconductors, and it takes several months from receiving an order to delivering it.

Kazuhiro Sugiyama, a consultant with Omdia Japan, said: “Some major semiconductor manufacturers are fully booked with orders through 2022, and they have little room to increase output. It seems the shortage will be resolved only in or after autumn 2022.”

■ Domestic production

Semiconductors have been called “industry’s rice,” likening them to the staple food of Japan, because they are the core parts of a wide range of products. Many countries, especially the United States and China, have been strengthening their efforts to secure semiconductor-related companies and technologies for their own needs.

In December 2020, China enacted a law to control imports and introduced restrictions on the products related to cyber-security. Similarly in 2010, when tensions rose between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands, Beijing started restricting exports of rare earths to Japan.

There are fears that China will heighten diplomatic pressure by using the supply of semiconductors for political leverage.

To cope with this possibility, the U.S. government shifted to a policy of increasing domestic production of semiconductors. In June this year, it announced a plan to provide at least $50 billion (about ¥5.5 trillion) in aid for production and research into such products.

Intel Corp. of the United States and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC), among other companies, will invest the equivalent of trillions of yen for this purpose in Arizona.

European countries, Taiwan and South Korea have announced aid measures for companies that produce or develop technologies inside their bloc or nation, seeking to avoid excessive reliance on imports of semiconductors.

Published : August 02, 2021

By : Chihiro Nakajima and Yo Nakanishi/The Japan News/ANN