Any faint hope that the COVID-19 coronavirus would be a short-lived or geographically isolated event disappeared this past week, as the number of cases spiked in the United States and several other countries. This in turn has prompted authorities to impose further travel restrictions and left businesses to figure out how they’re going to deal with potential supply-chain disruptions.
Chip giant Intel confirmed Friday that it has restricted worker travel globally "as a precaution" to areas significantly impacted by the virus. The company has 118,000 workers and operations around the globe and appears to have taken stronger precautions than some other tech giants that have restricted travel, including Amazon, Google, IBM and Facebook.
Not surprisingly, the growing grip of coronavirus forced more electronics companies to downgrade March quarter forecasts. This past week, the companies included semiconductor suppliers NXP and Microchip, as well as contract manufacturer Plexus. The uncertainty was are reflected in a statement from NXP CEO Richard Clemmer saying, "While we have not seen any material order cancellations, we currently expect the impact to revenue in the first quarter to be in the range of $50 million to $150 million.”
The supply-chain impact of coronavirus has been most evident in goods the general population has started hoarding: water, hand sanitizer, paper goods and masks. Despite health authorities warning of the limited effectiveness of masks, they continue to be in short supply. In Japan, display maker Sharp announced it would start producing masks at its Mia Prefecture plant in central Japan—a plant normally used for flat-panel display production—by the end of the month.
Elsewhere, consumer electronics are starting to feel the impact of the production slowdowns in China due to coronavirus. Apple, who produces iPhones and other electronics through contract manufacturer Foxconn, reportedly is seeing shortages of some of its consumer products, such as iPad Pros, Apple Watch Series 3 and 5, and AirPods earbuds.
One sector that may benefit from the growing COVID-19 crisis is telemedicine, as the availability of smartphone apps and other digital tools grows, and healthcare agencies and business seek ways to shift costs away from its brick-and-mortar facilities. Researchers from Augusta University have developed a coronavirus app that enables an individual to get an at-home risk assessment based on how they feel in about a minute and directs those deemed at risk to the nearest definitive testing facility.
Growing coronavirus concerns have created rumblings alleging government and other authorities have not given the crisis the proper sense of urgency. The issue of responsibility has reared its ugly head in another crisis—the software glitches in the Boeing 737 MAX planes that led to two crashes resulting in 346 deaths.
A recent FierceElectronics interview with Gregory Travis, a veteran instrument-rated pilot and career software engineer, revealed that engineering decisions made by the aerospace giant had as much to do with the crashes as the shortcomings of the MCAS flight control software.
The biggest flaw, perhaps not surprisingly, was related to sensors. In the FierceElectronics story, Travis contends that the biggest failing of MCAS was relying on only one angle-of-attack sensor located on either side of the plane, not both. “Those sensors fail all the time when they get hit by a bird or freeze, and engineers decided to use only one of them, which is mind-boggling,” he said.
In the story, Travis also noted that even when Boeing had grounded its MAX 737 planes, the company was still trying to fix its beleaguered MCAS software instead of attempting other fixes.
Elsewhere, European chipmaker STMicroelectronics announced it would acquire a majority stake in Exagen, a French Gallium Nitride (GaN) innovator, to accelerate ST’s power GaN semiconductor capabilities for auto, industrial and consumer apps. STMicroelectronics has been bolstering its portfolio of technical and IP expertise in wide-bandgap (WBG) materials such as GaN and Silicon Carbide (SiC) to increase efficiency and power density for chips used in various applications.