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Parts shortage may be boon for ceramic capacitors

With a continuing shortage of a tiny, obscure part known as a tantalum capacitor, electronics component companies are trying to pitch an alternative: ceramics.

    With a continuing shortage of a tiny, obscure part known as a tantalum capacitor, electronics component companies are trying to pitch an alternative: ceramics.

    Capacitors are a small but necessary part of almost all electronic devices, acting as a sort of shock absorber for the circuit board. The components, particularly those made of a rare metal called tantalum, have been in short supply amid a surge in demand for cell phones and other electronics gear.

    Ceramic capacitors have long been a mainstay in electronic devices but typically have been used to handle smaller electrical charges than do their tantalum counterparts. However, makers of ceramic components, including Murata Electronics and Vishay Intertechnology, have recently been improving their products to serve as replacements for the tantalum parts.

    Typical ceramic capacitors range in size from a granule of salt to a grain of rice and often cost only a few cents.

    "We have some open capacity, and we want to promote it," said John Denslinger, senior vice president of Kyoto, Japan-based Murata. The company estimates that about 10 percent of the 2.2 billion ceramic capacitors it cranks out each month could be used to replace parts made of tantalum.

    Many companies, including Sony and Agilent Technologies, have been saying that the capacitor shortage will hurt their financial results this year.

    Cell phone makers have been reducing the number of capacitors in each cell phone from more than a dozen a few years back to fewer than six today. However, the popularity of wireless devices and other consumer electronics has exploded in the past two years, eating up the supply of tantalum capacitors.

    In many cases, ceramic replacements will work just fine, said Allen Nogee, a senior analyst at Cahners In-Stat Group in Scottsdale, Ariz. And ceramics can often be used as a direct replacement for tantalum without redesigning a product.

    "I think you are going to still need a few tantalums in a phone, especially when you get close to the power supply," Nogee said. "The majority can use a replacement part."

    Lead times for Murata's "tantalum replacement" ceramic parts are about 16 weeks, compared with a wait of six months to a year for those actually made of tantalum, Denslinger said.

    The shortage is not because of a lack of tantalum itself but rather because of the manufacturing capacity needed to process tantalum into an electronic component.

    But even with a move to ceramics, the capacitor shortage is not likely to ease up anytime soon.

    "When we went into this year we thought it would have eased by November," Vishay senior vice president Glyndwr Smith said. "Now, we've said the first quarter (of 2001), and we're beginning to question that. It may be the second quarter before we reach parity."

    Malvern, Pa.-based Vishay, like rivals AVX and Kemet, offer both ceramic and tantalum parts, while Murata specializes in ceramics. All of the tantalum capacitor makers have been racing to add supply, but it takes about nine months to build a new manufacturing line, Smith said.

    "Most of that comes on in the fourth quarter," Smith said.

    As is often the case in the boom-and-bust world of electronic parts, much of the current difficulty in getting parts can be traced to a glut in the not-too-distant past. As recently as two years ago, the industry was awash in excess parts, and prices were too low to justify increasing supply.

    "Prices were driven so low, no one could justify capacity expansion," Smith said.