Professional Sound - August 2022 - Page 31

As a manufacturer , distributor , and retailer in the pro audio and MI industries , Steve Long , the president and CEO of Yorkville Sound and Long & McQuade , has a well-rounded perspective on what ’ s going on . For him , there are three key issues , which are the unavailability of parts , the skyrocketing cost of freight , and increasing consumer demand .
“ Especially in China , COVID has been very intermittent over there . You know , a certain factory would close and then open again , and then another factory would close . But the problem is , for us who do manufacturing , you ’ ve got parts coming from a hundred different places to make something . So , you only have to miss one of those parts and you can ’ t make [ the product ]. So , we ’ ve spent an awful lot of time reengineering to work around various parts that were unavailable . So , that ’ s been a challenge ,” Long reveals . “ Where that passes on is , so now you ’ ve got people who want speaker cabinets and we can ’ t make any more . We could hire more people , but if we hire more people , are we able to get the parts ? The last thing I want to do is hire a bunch of people and have them sitting around waiting for parts .”
In particular , microchips ( i . e . semiconductors or microprocessors ) and neodymium are is high demand across many manufacturing industries , and supply and capacity are just not able to keep up . One contributing factor to the microchip shortage is the proliferation of “ smart ” devices , with everything from toasters to lightbulbs coming online .
“ Chips can be difficult , right ? Because if you design a certain chip into your product , you have to have that chip . That ’ s definitely a big part of it ,” explains Long . “ With certain things , you can get the same thing from somewhere else . But a lot of those things are sole source , so there ’ s one place to get it . Also , neodymium went way up in price , for example . That ’ s another one that I know has been a factor . A lot of the speaker magnets and higher-end stuff have neodymium magnets , which went way , way up in price . Wood has gone up in price , so speaker cabinets went up . Plastics are oil-based and oil has gone way up .”
Someone with a unique perspective on these availability issues in the audio industry is David Lindberg , the Edmonton-raised , Hong Kong-based CEO of dB Enterprises HK and co-chair of the AES ’ s Audio Product Education Institute ( APEI ).
“ The biggest issue is with the semiconductor and electronic components . Everybody ’ s got this habit , mostly because of where these brands and their engineers went to school , to use TI ( Texas Instruments ) or STMicroelectronics – all these classic western-branded parts – and those guys have been hit with the shortage . The big audio companies , they would already have their allocation , so it ’ s not so much a problem . The largest shortages are for people who haven ’ t planned things out , or they ’ re trying to get new allocation for a new product , whatever new thing they ’ re trying to think of . And the worst-case scenario is if you ’ re a new brand or company , so you ’ ve got no street cred , you ’ ve got no history , in which case trying to get those electronic components is very difficult ,” Lindberg begins . “ In terms of other ingredients , like wood cabinets , are no issue . Or speaker comb materials , there ’ s really no issue . There ’ s always fluctuation and such , like with magnets for your drivers and stuff like that , and maybe ever so minor in copper for wiring . But the magnet thing is usually trending based on the automotive industry , because they use a lot of [ neodymium ] in car engines . But it really is electronic components and getting them that has been the bottleneck .”
As a solution to this microchip shortage , Lindberg is recommending to the pro audio manufacturers he deals with that they take a page out of the consumer audio playbook . Essentially , build more flexibility into their designs .
“ I ’ ve worked developing pro and consumer products , and one thing that I thought was very interesting about consumer products is that , for example , an LG soundbar will have a space on the circuit board for both an ST or a TI power stage . That was 15 years ago , but I thought that , ‘ This is genius because if you can ’ t get it from TI this week , we ’ ll just use the ST part .’ And so , what I ’ m seeing in lower-volume products is people doing alternate layouts , at least , of a circuit board . So , they ’ ll have a design that will use a TI part , but they ’ ll also have a design that will have an ST part ,” Lindberg explains , “ Now , in pro audio , size constraints aren ’ t really an issue for the most part — maybe a bit in in body packs or your mic gear , but for most products , there ’ s plenty of room . So , having room on a board for alternate population of parts is something you ’ ll see .”
As well , relating to what Steve Long was saying about Yorkville Sound ’ s team spending a lot of time reengineering products to work around parts that are unavailable , Lindberg
says a catchphrase he ’ s now hearing a lot these days is “ design for availability .”
“ Engineers in the west , they ’ ll be very familiar with designing using TI or Intel or all these kinds of processors . But there are parts in China or Taiwan , or other chips , especially for low-functioning stuff like a microcontroller – for instance , an STM32 is the classic – and finding the equivalent Chinese-designed part is easy . The challenge is porting your firmware over to that . So , you could find a chip that could do what it does , but getting the firmware you load onto that ST part to run on whatever piece of silicon from China , that ’ s a real heavy challenge . So , that ’ s where a lot of engineering resources could be allocated ,” Lindberg says .
From his vantage point in Hong Kong , as well , Lindberg is seeing a lot of activity in the secondary market .
“ It ’ s a little interesting in terms of the semiconductor industry ; they like to control their supply chain top to bottom . They like to know that , ‘ Okay , this allocation is for this customer .’ So , when you go to secondary market , you ’ ll get issues like when what they call the ‘ lot codes ’ are blacked out . Basically , the guy has got parts , he ’ s decided he ’ s not going to do that product , so they want to dump them , and they know that they can make money off them . So , you get these pseudo-black-market parts , and they ’ re all 100 % authentic , but they ’ re kind of coming out of different channels . That ’ s one way that industries are helping each other is because of demand , they ’ re unloading parts into this secondary market pool , so then you can pick up stuff ,” Lindberg explains . “ But like , I was asked to find some microchip microcontrollers for a company called Audio Pro from Sweden that does commercial install ceiling speakers for retail in Europe . Their product , the ex-works price , [ meaning the value of all the materials and other costs related to its production ,] I think they paid something like $ 75 , which for