A Sustainable Look At The Silicon Industry (2022)
Feb 14, 2022 | Angelo Echave
So why are we talking about electronic devices?
It is not the device that we will discuss here but the production of semiconductors which are core to the functionality of these devices. More specifically, the raw material that makes semiconductors; Silicon.
Let’s have a look at Silicon and what it is about; from its sustainability to the impact of Covid-19 and the current woes of the shipping industry which play an important role in the supply chain of not just semiconductors but other goods as well. First things first, what do we know about silicon?
What is Silicon?
Put simply, silicon is a raw material that you can find on the periodic table of elements - specifically in the 14th group. It can be found in rocks, sand and soils, linked with oxygen molecules such as silicon dioxide, otherwise known as silica.
In its purest form, Silicon is a metalloid that has a blue-grey colour. Pure silicon is extensively used as a semiconductor for computer devices and microelectronics industries.
So what makes silicon special?
For typical metals, electrical conductivity gets worse as the material is subjected to higher temperatures. The opposite is true for silicon; as the temperature increases, it becomes better at conducting electricity.
However, only the purest form of Silicon is used for semiconductor production. So what happens to the less pure kind. It becomes Silicone!
Alongside the purest form of silicon, we use a synthetic substance known as silicone. Silicone, in contrast, is a synthetic polymer made out of silicon, oxygen and other elements. Silicone can be found in its liquid form or flexible, rubber-like plastic.
So where can we find silicone in our day-to-day life?
Silicone rubber can be found in a lot of kitchenware, such as oven mittens, tongs and panhandles. In the medical field, you can find silicone in contact lenses, bandages and a variety of other things.
Aside from their actual names, silicon and silicone, what are the differences between the two? Both share the same properties - since silicone is made out of silicon, both are very low in toxicity, high in heat resistance and very good electrical insulators.
The only difference you can suggest is the physical form of both materials and how pure we can produce silicon. If the quality of the pure silicon is not on par for industrial work, it can be grounded into a fine powder. The powder will be mixed with other chemicals to produce silicone, but this is a simplification of the process.
Sustainability of Silicon
So, what can we say about the sustainability of silicon and silicone?
First and foremost, silicone is considered to be a perfect alternative to plastic. Both in terms of being sustainable and environmentally friendly. However, just like having options for different items, we must consider the pros and cons of using silicone.
Let’s start with how silicone is produced.
Unlike silicone, plastic tends to be made from crude oil - a non-renewable resource extracted from the ground. For silicone, we can extract silica from many resources like rocks, sand and soils. While not strictly a renewable raw material, we have many more abundances of sand than crude oil.
While silicone is recyclable and not biodegradable, it does have an advantage over plastic. Silicon would not break down into micro-plastics, allowing products made out of silicone to be ocean-friendly and less harmful. Although, silicone will require a specialised recycling company to be recycled correctly.
Generally, silicone is a better alternative to products made out of plastic. However, one of the few things everyone must consider is the quality of silicone. If the product uses poorly handled silicone, it could become a health hazard.
Consider this as a warning to double-check the product and its pros and cons with silicone or any other material.
Effect of Covid-19 Pandemic on Silicon Industry
As it is our 2nd year with the coronavirus, how did it impact the silicon industry?
You might have heard about the massive shortage of semiconductors (also recognized as computer chips). In short, there was a lack of semiconductors available while there was an increase in demand. These chips were needed to power many modern devices such as cars, computers and smartphones.
Since semiconductors are needed for our day-to-day devices, imagine the impact of countries going in lockdown. It led to a sudden drop in manufacturing due to the uncertainty of the pandemic caused by cancelled orders and just-in-time practices.
Moreover, the lockdown encouraged individuals to work from home. This invoked more demand for electronic devices like laptops and computers to allow efficient home-working. Businesses placed their demand for laptops, to supply their workers with their needs.
With demand increasing, many companies had to ramp up their production. With more potential orders, the companies had to extend the lead time (time between order to delivery) for the semiconductors. In pre-coronavirus time, the lead time is usually 1-2 months but after the pandemic hit, the time has been pushed up to 3-4 months.
As a result, the supply chain for semiconductors was stretched out and the delay was felt everywhere.
Silicon Supply chain
In sheer bad luck, the semiconductor industry had problems not caused by the pandemic. In Texas, they suffered through an atrocious winter storm which led to semiconductor factories closing down. On the other side of the globe, Japan had a fire break out in their chip plant; creating further delays.
Aside from the factories, there were complexities in the manufacturing of semiconductors. At the moment, there are two different methods of producing chips:
Using 200mm wafers
Using 300mm wafers.
These methods refer to the diameter of the circular silicon wafer that gets split into tiny chips. Generally, the larger wafers are more expensive and often used for more advanced devices.
In particular, the 200mm wafers had a massive demand boom. There was a demand shift for lower-cost chips, which would be embedded in an ever-wider variety of consumer products. As a result, the older 200mm wafers are more sought after.
In response to the insufficient capacity for semiconductor production, a few companies have started to invest and build new facilities. Companies such as TSMC, Sony and Intel. Even wafer manufacturers are building 200mm wafer fabs (semiconductor processing facilities).
While plans are set in motion to help mediate the problems in the future, the current production capacity is unable to meet the demand.
The Shipping Industry
It did not help that the cost of transportation has boomed during the pandemic. Alongside the increase in demand for semiconductors, many global shipments have raised their prices. Furthermore, this impact was accompanied by a rise in air freight fees and a massive shortage of lorry drivers in Europe.
But what was the general situation for the shipping industry during the pandemic?
In short, logistic companies were suffering similar situations as any other industries.
With regards to their manpower, people were furloughed or laid off. This resulted in logistic companies struggling to recover their manpower when demand increased. Furthermore, the local government encourages working from home or financial support to those unable to work - making work less attractive.
To help cope with the manpower shortage, logistic companies are checking with clients on making logistics smoother. Suggestions like; planning ahead, better communications and considering alternate shipping routes. The uncertainty caused by the pandemic would not allow last-minute bookings possible so clients need to prepare now.
After our experience with the coronavirus pandemic, what are the next steps for many industries?
What happened to the silicon industry, pre and post covid-19, is a lesson we can learn for other industries. A shortage in semiconductors could be a metaphor for a shortage of available staff or raw materials. The future investments into silicon wafer fabs could be a case of improving productivity with higher capacity or safety practices.
In short, preparation for the worst-case scenario. For instance, the coronavirus was a massive blow to the hospitality industry. Many people had a change in their livelihood or a delay to their capacity. Meanwhile, it’s not simple to prepare for an extreme scenario such as a pandemic.
However, it is our second year with the pandemic and things are getting changed for the better. The shortages of semiconductors have been reduced and there is more safety for the hospitality industry to open its doors once again.
What about the creative manufacturing industry that Rural Handmade works in?
For many creative manufacturers in developing countries, it was already tough for them to expand their scope to a global scale. The pandemic did not help them, or not yet. Potentially, with more individuals working from home and on the internet, they could view their work on websites such as ours.
Soon, the pandemic might continue to its time with us and we will adapt to it. It will not stop many industries from developing new productive practices or improving workplace safety. The same can be said about the creative manufacturing industry.
If you like to hear more about how Rural Handmade has coped with the pandemic and how we aim to support them, come visit our website and have a chat with us.
We look forward to hearing your thoughts on the matter and how we can improve their situation during our extended stay with the pandemic.
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