Of all the businesses to suffer from the global shortage of computer chips, dog washing — a low-tech affair involving soap, water and a dirty pet — ought to be near the bottom of the list.
But as with so many low-tech tasks these days, high-tech options are available, and that's how CCSI International, a family-run manufacturer in rural Illinois, was hurt by the chip shortage.
CCSI makes electronic dog-washing booths that dispense shampoo, water and optional fur-drying. The machines are a hit with dog-park managers and the U.S. military, which buys them for use on its bases.
But the machines are controlled by computer chips. Recently, CCSI, which has its factory in Garden Prairie, Ill., was told by its circuit-board supplier that the usual chips were not available. A substitute chip would work, but CCSI would have to tweak its circuit boards.
That process has raised CCSI's costs, bringing the frustrations of the same chip shortage that has idled auto factories around the world to a tiny town where the other employers are a granary, a couple of bars and a part-time post office.
"This particular problem affects all aspects of manufacturing, from little people to big conglomerates," said the company's president, Russell Caldwell, whose father founded the business in the 1960s.
Auto companies have been the most visible victims of the chip shortage, with Ford last week saying it expects to produce 1.1 million fewer vehicles this year than it had planned.
But in a testament to how dependent the world has become on the tiny silicon wafers, manufacturers of products from video game consoles to household appliances are reporting problems.
Apple said last week that the supply pinch is hurting production of iPads and Mac computers and might cost it as much as $4 billion in sales, while Caterpillar warned of possible trouble ahead. Samsung said its sales of display panels are down because manufacturers have cut production. Railways are complaining that they have fewer autos to haul around.
Cars and litter boxes
The shortages threaten to act as a drag on the economy just as the post-pandemic recovery gets underway.
"When the chip supply tightens, the whole economy suffers," said Glenn O'Donnell, a tech analyst at market-research firm Forrester.
Semiconductors are the brains behind most modern electronics, from computers and cellphones to smart toasters and washing machines. Cars, too, rely on dozens of semiconductors to operate dashboard displays, air bags and navigation systems.
Increasingly, however, semiconductors are enabling high-tech solutions to low-tech problems, such as vacuuming a carpet or cleaning a litter box. When the pandemic hit last year, demand for many chips soared further as white-collar workers snapped up computers and monitors for use at home, and leaned on cloud-computing centers to support a surge in Zoom and Microsoft Teams meetings.
Soaring demand and limited chip-manufacturing capacity worldwide means the shortages could last beyond 2022, until more semiconductor factories can be built, the chief executive of chipmaking giant Intel said last month. The plants can cost more than $10 billion and take a few years to ramp up, a commitment that few companies have been willing to make.
Because of the steep cost, most chip manufacturers have focused their investment in recent years on factories that make the highest-tech, most expensive semiconductors. That has left lower-tech chips — the kind that run dog-washing booths, car parts and many other goods — in particularly short supply.
The strength of the pet market has made the dog booths a key growth driver for CCSI. "A person takes their dog in there, they put the money in and the electronics of the circuit board operates the shampoo and counts the time and money," Caldwell said.
A few weeks ago, CCSI's circuit-board supplier checked in with a problem: It could not get the semiconductors it had been attaching to the boards that operate the dog-washing booths. It was able to find a similar chip that would work, but because the replacement chip was bigger, the circuit-board maker was not sure that it would fit inside the machinery.
Caldwell got a tape measure and found that the new chip would fit, but the substitution has raised the company's costs and probably will delay deliveries of the new boards, he said.
Many manufacturers are in the same boat. Whirlpool has said a lack of chips and other supplies is leaving it unable to keep up with brisk demand for appliances. Chinese appliance companies have said the same.
HP, the electronics company, forecasts that global demand for personal computers this year will be 45% higher than the company was expecting before the pandemic, leaving it struggling to buy enough chips.
Kansas City Southern, a railway operator, said the idling of several auto plants in Mexico contributed to an 18% fall in the company's auto-freight revenue in the first quarter. Union Pacific also reported an auto-freight slump.
Chip makers hit, too
Even some chip companies are suffering from the chip shortage. Innovium is a 200-person startup in San Jose, Calif., that designs but does not manufacture semiconductors for use in data centers. It contracts the manufacturing out to companies in Asia, which are so overloaded that Innovium has faced delays delivering its chips to customers, CEO Rajiv Khemani said in interview.
"The government is certainly listening to a lot of large companies in terms of solutions," Khemani said, pointing to a recent White House summit with automakers and other big businesses. "We think it's important to include small companies like us because we are really driving innovation in Silicon Valley, and we are the growth engine of the economy."
Erik Drown, a logistics specialist at electronics distributor Select Technology in Rowley, Mass., has been spending most of his waking hours in recent weeks trying to buy semiconductors for his automotive clients. Now manufacturers in other sectors are requesting help, including some that make gas and water meters, Drown said in an interview.
"This is spreading further than the automotive companies," he said.
Drown is a middleman, contacting companies to try to buy any spare chips they have lying around, maybe because they overbought, or because they are getting out of a particular business and no longer need them.
Counterfeiting is a problem. Select Technology tests the chips it sources before selling them and has come across a fair number of counterfeits, Drown said.
But any potential fix to the supply pinch depends on transport tracking and each semiconductors sensor contains three or four chips that enable functions such as GPS tracking, cellular communication and data processing. Costs for those parts have increased between 5 and 45%, said tech-company executive Sanjay Sharma.
Procurement team also try to make substitutions where possible to use more readily available chips. "It's not a fun place to be in right now," Sharma said.