Ripple effect of Japan disasters on consumer electronics (podcast)

Jim Handy, a semiconductor analyst for market research firm Objective Analysis, sees some impact but no likely immediate shortages or price jumps of end-user products.

While most Japanese wafer fabrication plants ("fabs") are located in the southern part of the country, hundreds of miles from the epicenter, at least one manufacturer is still shut down after last week's devastating earthquake and tsunami, according to Jim Handy, an analyst with semiconductor market research firm Objective Analysis. Some Japanese technology companies have curtailed operations.

Semiconductor analyst Jim Handy Objective Analysis
But even plants in other parts of the country can be affected by rattling and, of course power glitches. "These are very sensitive plants because they are using extremely advanced optics to lay down lines as small as 25 nanometers, that's 25 billionth of a meter," Handy said (scroll down to listen to entire interview).

Handy said that Freescale operates a wafer fab in Sendai, the city that appears to have endured the brunt of the damage. The company issued a statement saying it "safely evacuated everyone from our Sendai fabrication facility following the earthquake and confirmed that no one was injured during that process." But Handy said that it's not clear when the plant might reopen. He said Toshiba and Sandisk's flash memory fab, which is 500 miles from the earthquake, shut down for a few hours but quickly reopened.

No likely consumer price hikes
Handy does expect some shortages and some increase in the wholesale prices of flash memory and other components from Japan, but "typically when this kind of a thing happens or when there is any kind of a jump in semiconductor prices, that jump is not passed on to the consumer." He added that manufacturers realize that price increases could "scare the consumer away, especially if they cross certain thresholds." Unlike gasoline, consumer electronics are mostly discretionary purchases, so if consumers sense a temporary increase in price, they may just wait for prices to come down.

Apple not likely to be affected
He said not to expect any shortages of iPad 2s or other Apple products. "Apple's strength as a buyer is positively frightening to chip manufacturers," he said. He added that Apple typically places orders for "a half billion dollars" and pays in advance. "Apple is the last company that is going to get short shrift when it comes to getting their fair share or unfair share." He says he does worry about smaller companies or "companies that for some reason have questionable credit." He said that start-ups might have trouble getting flash memory.

Click below to listen to the entire 7 minute, 30 second interview.

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