If you’re one of the tens of millions of gamers who have been trying — and failing — to get hold of a new-generation console over the last six months, we’ve got a little bit of bad news for you. For now, at least, it doesn’t look like the console shortage is going to ease up, with some in the industry expecting the situation to continue through to 2022.
The issue isn’t with either Microsoft or Sony, who are making consoles just as fast as they can, or even with the retailers who seem to be spending minimal effort to combat scalpers. It’s actually far earlier in the process, with the manufacture of semi-conductors, and this has far wider implications than games consoles alone.
In essence, anything that has a computer chip in it needs semi-conductors; it’s what the chips are made out of. Semi-conductor manufacturers create large sheets (or wafers) of transistors made from semi-conducting material, etched with ultra-violet lasers, from which chip manufacturers create their products.
As the distances between transistors have got smaller and smaller — the PS5’s main CPU uses seven nanometer semi-conductors, while the PS4 used 28nm, and the PS1 used 1200nm — so have the number of companies making them. Right now, a company called Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) makes around half of all semi-conductor wafers globally, including the 7nm wafers for AMD to make the chips inside PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series consoles. Combined with South Korea’s Samsung and fellow Taiwanese company Foxconn, the trio makes almost all chip wafers world wide.
Demand for these wafers has gone up, and driven further up by lockdowns leaving more people at home, but supply has not. Obviously there was a major effect on production, as there has been with almost everything else, from the global issues that will leave 2020 in the history books. Manufacturers like TSMC don’t just need employees at work, but equipment and raw materials from elsewhere in the world to create its wafers.
In addition, as AMD’s CEO Lisa Su points out, there’s been a rumbling trade war between the US and China for the last two years. That’s also impacted the supply chain; TSMC largely sits within the China-claimed territory of Taiwan but also runs the WaferTech facility in Washington state and has started work on a $35bn factory in Arizona. If that weren’t enough, Taiwan is also experiencing a record drought, and the wafer manufacture process requires a lot of water. All that means the global lead time for chip orders has doubled over the last 12 months, meaning it takes twice as long to fill an order as it did a year ago.
Consoles aren’t the only place you’ll find chips either. As well as personal computers, smart phones also require these semi-conductors and the automotive industry is also increasingly relying on them too. That’s all driven demand up for the product considerably, and the few tens of millions of games consoles look like pretty small fry next to the billion mobile phones sold annually, and they’re a low priority product as a result — but even Apple is halting production on its lines due to the shortage.
The issues are starting to ease, but games consoles are pretty far down the pecking order. That all means that it’s going to be some time before you can walk into a shop and buy a PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series off the shelf rather than watching out for stock drops online. Those of you waiting for Gran Turismo 7 or Forza Motorsport before you buy a new-gen console, might be timing it just right.
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