Wireless Modules bring agility, helping fight component shortages
Updated: Oct 18, 2022
As semiconductor shortages and price increases continue to plague product deliveries from automobiles, consumer electronics to military equipment, the ability to replace a part that is having a lead time of 60 weeks is definitely useful, as that will stop product from shipping.
Very often Bluetooth products are based on 3rd party Modules to reduce product development time and the cost of wireless certifications; in addition, Modules have an ace up their sleeve to push back against the component shortage. The component shortages for microcontrollers appear to be somewhat related to the semiconductor process node size used, typically automotive is on 55nm-65nm or larger, this usually means the Bluetooth microcontrollers that are on the 55nm-65nm or larger (like 130nm) will not be able to expand capacity to meet demand (since automotive is fighting for the same semiconductor fab output) but the same capacity constraints may not apply to modules made from components in smaller node sizes.
For example, the Nordicsemi nRF51822 is on the 130nm node, while the nRF52832 is at the 55nm (logic) and 65nm (Flash) and, the nRF5340 is on a 55nm node (of course it makes even more sense when an nRFx IC is available on a 22nm/28nm node) when you use a module you can swap out the nRFxx based module that is not available and drop in a nRFxx based module that continues to be available. This provides flexibility on the component side; you will still need to do system level certifications (like what our EMSi5340 is certified for) but the parts are available and finished products can get out of the door.
There are a few things that you need to note when you swap out a Bluetooth module for one IC to a Bluetooth module of a different IC. Software may require updates, so it would make sense to keep it within the same semiconductor vendor, so software impact is reduced. The RSSI measurements are slightly dependent on the node size, so it is likely that you must recalibrate that. The 32KHz oscillator used as a sleep clock may need to be updated but, this can be on the Bluetooth module so it may not need a PCB change.
Normally Bluetooth Modules would be used when the customer volumes are 1K – 10K but with ongoing shortages and supply chain issues the module maker who is making millions of Modules reduces the pain of managing shortfall in multiple components (like crystals, inductors etc), so Modules are looking attractive even in the 100K – 500K units. This of course shifts the bottleneck from the IC vendor to the module maker but with the added advantage that the product may be shipped with a module made from a different IC and the economies of scale leverage that a module maker has with the IC vendor and the vendors of the passives that are needed for the IC.
Bluetooth Modules are one small step in managing some of the supply chain issues, and bring a bit more value to product folks who are struggling to get parts on time to get product shipping.
Node sizes: This refers to the lithographic technology used to make the transistors on the silicon wafer. A 130 nm node size means that the smallest transistor gate length is 130nm.