Ask Hackaday: How’s That Capacitor Shortage Going?

There is a looming spectre of doom hovering over the world of electronics manufacturing. It’s getting hard to find parts, and the parts you can find are expensive. No, it doesn’t have anything to with the tariffs enacted by the United States against Chinese goods this last summer. This is a problem that doesn’t have an easy scapegoat. This is a problem that strikes at the heart of any economic system. This is the capacitor and resistor shortage.

When we first reported on the possibility of a global shortage of chip capacitors and resistors, things were for the time being, okay. Yes, major manufacturers were saying they were spinning down production lines until it was profitable to start them up again, but there was relief: parts were in stock, and they didn’t cost that much more.

Now, it’s a different story. We’re in the Great Capacitor Shortage of 2018, and we don’t know when it’s going to get any better.

The Beginnings of a Shortage

The news of a coming shortage of chip resistors and capacitors hit early this year. Yaego was not taking any new chip resistor orders. The best reasoning for Yaego’s actions were that prices on SMD resistors were already too low. There was an abundance of chip resistors and capacitors, and inventory simply wasn’t moving fast enough. There is a minimum price at which it is economical to manufacture resistors. It seems that price is somewhat north of a few tenths of a penny per resistor.

When we first looked at the impending shortage of resistors and capacitors a few things stood out. Firstly, it is nigh impossible to properly count the inventory of a single value of capacitor or resistor across all manufacturers, markets, and distributors. There’s a reason tiny chip resistors and capacitors are referred to as jellybean parts: if you need a 1MΩ, 5%, 100mW, 0603 resistor, that’s really all you need to know. But that doesn’t describe a single stock keeping unit — far from it. Distributors will list that same part three times, one for tape on reel, one for cut tape, and one for a complete reel. Between manufacturers parts will have slight differences, like in the temperature coefficient. And some manufacturers might not make a 1MΩ, 5%, 100mW, 0603 resistor, instead opting to bin out 1/8W resistors (unless you’re using them as heating elements, these resistors are the same). In short, if you’re building something that needs a 1MΩ resistor that will dissipate 100mW, and you need it in an 0603 package, there’s really no way of knowing how many resistors will work in that application.

Secondly, when news of a resistor and capacitor shortage hit, stock levels were still very, very high. You could buy ten million resistors, all identical, from the same manufacturer. It takes a while for stock levels to draw down; Twinkies didn’t magically disappear when Hostess declared bankruptcy in 2012. It took days for those Ding Dongs to disappear from store shelves, and that was with a story eminently attractive to social media and a public primed to panic buy. Resistors simply aren’t as sexy as Twinkies. Engineers are going to buy them as they need them.

Taking these two items together, we can get some idea of how the passive component shortage is going.

Our first look at the passive component shortage pulled data from FindChips Pro on Yageo’s RC0603JR-071ML thick film resistor (Disclosure: FindChips Pro is a tool built by Supplyframe, Hackaday’s parent company). In August of 2017, there were about ten million of these resistors available across all distributors. In February of 2018, there were six million. Today, there are a little more than two million. Supply levels are dropping, and slowly the price of these resistors is climbing.

In the same way that it’s impossible to tell how many 0603 resistors are available, it’s also impossible to say what the general trend is for these passive components. In the absence of data we can look at an anecdote, and in this regard I can tell you yes, there is a capacitor shortage.

On June 18th of this year, I ordered a reel of 50V, 0.1uF, X7R, 0805 capacitors from Mouser. I didn’t notice they were backordered, so oh well, I’ll just have a reel of parts show up sometime. Since then, the order has been pushed back twice, and I’ll now hopefully take delivery of this reel of capacitors on March 25th, 2019.

The Capacitor Shortage Doesn’t Tie In With Tariffs

The biggest news in the world of electronics component procurement are the tariffs enacted by the United States against Chinese goods. These tariffs may seem like an easy scapegoat but this shortage is not connected to the tariffs. It could be reasoned that tariffs have very little effect on stock levels at all — just because something costs more doesn’t mean you won’t be able to buy it, it will just cost more. No, the bigger threat to electronics manufacturers is the availability of resistors, capacitors, and diodes. These boring but vital components are found in every electronic device, and anecdotal evidence seems to say that we’re in the middle of a shortage.

The truth is that thoughtful discussion concerning a capacitor shortage is at least as hard as an Intro to Economics homework problem. Existing inventory sells for half a cent per piece, and the factory is only profitable if it can sell its widgets at seven tenths of a cent per piece. The factory owner can change what widget they’re cranking out, or give the factory some down time until it is profitable to make widgets again. That seems to be what is happening with jellybean parts.

Have You Encountered Stock Shortages on Parts?

So, how is the engineering community dealing with the shortage of these jellybean parts? We’d like to hear from the Hackaday community regarding resistors, capacitors, or any electronic components that have caused you to face shortages when it came time to order. Please share your experience in the comments below.

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