By Kevin Meyer
What is a day or even a week of manufacturing disruption worth to you? How about 0.07 seconds?
A split-second power disruption at a Toshiba Corp. factory in Japan could hurt shipments and raise prices for one of the world's most widely used computer chips, a mainstay of devices like smartphones, tablet PCs and digital music players.
Toshiba said the power outage could cause a 20% drop in its shipments over the next two months or so of chips known as NAND flash memory, which are used to store music, photos and data in products such as Apple Inc.'s iPhone and iPad.
I can just see the cubes filled with engineers, perhaps one of which noticed the lights flicker, going "what the…?" We've all been there, but probably not with this level of fear and trepidation. Yes they had safeguards, sort of.
Toshiba's troubles started early Wednesday when, according to power supplier Chubu Electric Power Co., there was a sudden drop in voltage that caused a 0.07-second power interruption at Toshiba's Yokkaichi memory-chip plant in Mie prefecture.
Even the briefest power interruption to the complex machines that make chips can have an effect comparable to disconnecting the power cord on a desktop computer, since the computerized controls on the systems must effectively be rebooted, said Dan Hutcheson, a chip-manufacturing analyst at VLSI Research in San Jose, Calif.
For that reason, chip companies typically take precautions that include installing what the industry calls uninterruptible power supplies. Part of Toshiba's safeguards didn't work this time because the voltage drop was more severe than what the backup system is designed to handle, a company spokesman said.
Power outages frequently cause damage to chips, which are fabricated on silicon wafers about the size of dinner plates that may take eight to 12 weeks to process, Mr. Hutcheson said. Wafers that are inside processing machines at the time of an outage are often ruined, he added, though many that are in storage or in transit among those machines are not.
That must really have been a severe 0.07 second drop. The old-fashioned analog engineer in me, who remembers the original fascination with how a tape recorder could send data to a Radio Shack TRS-80 at 60 bits per second if the volume was adjusted correctly, has a hard time fathoming how such a minute interruption can cause so much havoc. But it obviously did.
So what is that potential for an 0.07 second disruption worth? Is it even possible to prevent at any reasonable cost?