How engineers can cope with design and sourcing nightmares

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Electronics designers and purchasers are facing a trade-off between future-proofing designs with the latest technology or selecting products with reliable availability. Following are 5 steps that could help make the right selection and take the edge off the fear of discontinuations and out-of-stock scenarios.

In the past two years, the semiconductor industry has made tremendous strides, especially in memory technology: We see NAND flash memories going 3D with up to a staggering 238 layers. Meanwhile,  in DRAM DDR5, components are achieving twice the speed and four times the capacity of DDR4.

The shiny new thing

If you design or sell industrial applications, you might think you can sit back and relax as your customers are not really in need of this. However, these innovations are driven by an unparalleled surge in memory-hungry AI and IoT applications. And with more and more data that needs to be processed (for example, for face recognition or autonomous driving), there is a demand for industrial-grade DDR5 memory modules like the one that MEMPHIS Electronic has configured based on Samsung DDR5 components:

card and modules

Innovation comes at a price

Every innovation and move to a new generation also means that older technologies are being discontinued. So, while you might have just recovered from the latest supply chain shortage, you are now facing the nightmare of discontinuation.

Currently, some manufacturers are putting an end to components that are particularly popular in the industrial environment, such as eMMCs (embedded Multimedia Cards) in the 100 BGA form factor. These in particular have earned their place in industrial and embedded PCs as well as surveillance, drones and automation. Consequently, if there is a backlog of orders, buyers may not even have the opportunity for last time buys, forcing them to look for alternatives fast.

Take the fear out of selecting the right product

No matter whether a company is  considering moving to a new memory generation or wants to handle discontinuations more proactively, here are a few easy steps that will help  take off the edge of this daunting task.

1) Seen one, seen them all?

DRAM memory turns 55 this year, while SRAM and NAND flash memory have been around for 35 years. Sure, these technologies have continuously evolved, but the underlying principles have remained unchanged.

And indeed, if you look at the datasheets of the various manufacturers you might think they really are the same, and their products differ only in nuances. Nonetheless, every memory product has its own set of strengths and weaknesses and if you make a wrong selection, it can have a massive impact on the quality of your products.

For specialty distributor MEMPHIS Electronic memory chips are far more than just part numbers. The team knows the strengths, timing values and pinouts, and is able to provide genuine technical support and make objective recommendations on the products that best meet the needs of the design at hand.

2) What are your alternatives?

The last two years have proven that the unexpected can happen. Being dependent on only one supplier for your memory component or module is extremely risky. Especially for critical applications in medical technology or in automotive environments, qualification is very complex and expensive. For this reason, we recommend qualifying two to three different memory alternatives so you can switch to an alternate product if delivery times are constantly poor or discontinuation looms.

3) Does a well-known brand equal reliable delivery?

When choosing memory, hardware designers often follow the recommendations of processor manufacturers. However, these recommendations generally apply to standard consumer applications and usually only include products from major memory manufacturers. As industrial customers generally only buy relatively small quantities, they are in a weak position in times of allocation when large orders are prioritized. Particularly for long-tail products, it is worth considering a supplier from whom your own order is not just "peanuts". This brings us to the next point…

4) How long will the components be needed?

With each new product generation, uneconomical, older technologies are being phased out to free up capacity for new developments. This information is not found in any datasheet. Specialty distributors gain insight into the manufacturer's roadmaps and, based on this information and many years of experience in working with these manufacturers, can make more accurate assessments as to whether a component will also be available beyond the lifetime of your design. But even if they commit to long-term availability, our guidance is as follows: trust is good, but a Plan B is better.

5) Can you trust “just in time!?

Most manufacturing companies have given up their own parts warehouses because they tie up too many resources. In times of massive delivery bottlenecks, which according to experts could last through 2023 or 2024, distributors with their own warehouses are a good alternative. As part of long-term framework agreements, critical components can be stocked for a whole year or more. For less critical products, shorter stock periods give you enough time to find and qualify a suitable alternative.

There is no other market that is as volatile as memory semiconductors. For this reason, it's a good idea to maintain as many design and qualification options as possible right from the start in order to mitigate risks. A reliable distribution partner can help.

Ken Heller is General Manager at MEMPHIS Electronic Inc., at booth #806  at Sensors Converge 2023, running June 20-22 in Santa Clara, Calif.  His experience includes sales and leadership roles with Toshiba Electronics and SK hynix to help manufacturers of industrial applications find the right memory solutions for their designs over the entire life cycle of their products.