The vital importance of the power grid in the supply chain

The vital importance of the power grid in the supply chain

Business news |
By Nick Flaherty

Power is of course critical to the operation of electronic systems. Power supplies, online and uninterruptible, as well as batteries and energy harvesting have been an increasing focus for designers from the data centre to the Internet of Things. But recent events have clearly demonstrated quite how critical the power gird is to operation of the world’s supply chains.

The automotive industry, still reeling from the shortages caused by recent factory closures, has been hit yet again. As more systems rely on electronics to operate, so the robustness of the electricity grid is even more critical.

NXP’s wafer fabs in Austin, Texas has only just come back online after power was diverted to residential homes during winter storms. The Samsung’s fab in the city is still down and Infineon’s is up and running but will take another month to reach full production. While the fabs had the opportunity to pause production, the storm and subsequent loss of utilities damaged NXP’s two wafer manufacturing facilities in Austin and caused a full shutdown for over a month. NXP is currently evaluating the wafer-level work in process (WIP) to ensure appropriate product quality, but around a month of wafer production has been lost to date from NXP’s two Austin-based wafer manufacturing facilities says the company, costing around $100m.

“The weather conditions and utility disruptions the state of Texas experienced last month were truly unprecedented. We are pleased that our Austin facilities have now resumed initial operations and we are making solid progress on our recovery plan designed to return the wafer fabs to pre-storm production levels. We understand the supply disruptions may impact our customers and we are working to ramp to full production while maintaining quality for these complex manufacturing processes,” said Kurt Sievers, NXP’s President and CEO.

“We are pleased that the fab in Austin is up and running after the required shutdown,” said Jochen Hanebeck, COO of Infineon. “Based on our latest assessments, the impact will limit our ability to fully supply our customers’ needs. We continue to provide updates to affected customers. For most product categories from Austin, we expect to reach pre-shutdown output levels in June 2021. Due to the tight market conditions and resulting fully loaded facility, the recovery of lost production volume will not be possible.”

At the same time, the recent fire at the OVH data centre in Strasbourg highlights this reliance on the power infrastructure. One building at OVH was destroyed in the fire, initially assessed as caused by an uninterruptible power supply after its maintenance. But the high voltage power lines shut down as a result, cutting off three other buildings and the digital services of over 6,000 customers with four times the impact of the initial fire.

This is why the focus on making the electricity grid more robust is key. Distributed grids with digital moitoring and robust software is a vital part of this development, as the LF Foundation has also been highlighting as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

These events have naturally highlighted the importance of disaster management, but also the importance of capacity. Like OVH, NXP and Infineon do not have spare capacity sitting idle in another location that can be brought into use at a moment’s notice. With that in mind, TSMC’s plan for six fab buildings at its site in Arizona may well fall foul of the same issues. For OVH, one data centre building burning down is requiring over 12,000 replacement servers to be built at short notice, with OVH ramping up its in-house production while at the same time assessing the smoke damage in the other buildings. One wrinkle of the experience was that while digital data was backed up, the encryption keys were on the servers on the site that could not be accessed.

With ever more digital design moving to the cloud, this is a key learning point and one not lost on OVH, which is now offering backup as a free service and setting up a lab to research the causes and remedies for fires in data centres.

The risk to the power infrastructure is even broader today than accidents or the weather. The UK’s strategic security review highlighted the power grid and smart systems as key technology that needs to be protected against attack.

“The UK’s energy infrastructure remains an attractive target for attacks by states and non-state actors such as terrorists and criminals. Protecting this will involve ensuring adequate defence against new cyber security risks as our energy system becomes increasingly reliant on digital technologies,” says the report.

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