UCA production postponed due to IC shortage

It’s been quite a long time without any Universal Chip Analyzer news. No worries: I continued to work on the project and added some nice features in the past months. It’s now time to publish some updates. Let’s start with the biggest issue: the final UCA v2 is now ready for production but unfortunately, the global IC shortage is so serious that I’m not able to start producing them right now.

The availability and price for some key components used for the UCA is totally out of control since last summer. The lead time for many ICs is now counted in months, sometimes even more than a year. Prices have gone insane: 2x to 3x increase for DC-DC converters and common MCUs like the ARM Cortex-M0 ATSAMD21 used on the UCA and even much more for the base FPGA.

The exact same FPGA from the same supplier, which I bought $5.9 less than one year ago, now costs $65, an awesome 10x increase! Volume quantities are still available, but from a few brokers (with questionable control quality) and only at indecent prices. Some of them even bought batch of previously assembled boards to salvage the chips and sell them as “used” parts! Based on these crazy prices, a complete UCA (FPGA + IF board without top interface board) would cost in the $200 range, which is way too high to start production.

I’ve studied many workarounds, but unfortunately, none of them can solve the problem quickly. One of the options was to switch from the Spartan-6 line to the newer Spartan-7 or Artix-7 line. Both are still active but unavailable at decent price right now, but I would expect the Xilinx FPGAs based on the 28nm process (7 series) to become available again sooner than the more mature 45nm line (6 series).

While Spartan-6 are not expected to become EOL before 2027 at least, switching to the Spartan-7 will allow access to the newer software development suite from Xilinx (Vivado) instead of the old ISE. On the downside, the higher performance of the Spartan-7 is almost useless in the UCA, they only come in BGA form factor (which is more costly to assemble than the TQFP package used on the Spartan-6) and they also require a much more complex power distribution scheme that will increase the overall BOM by at least $15. To make things even harder, Artix-7/Spartan-7 FPGAs require a much bigger configuration file (bitstream) that will jeopardize the whole programming tricks I use on the UCA. A new MCU based on a more powerful Cortex-M3 will be mandatory to program the FPGA, with bitstreams files (up to 100+ on the UCA!) stored on an SD Card instead of a Flash EEPROM.

All these changes would approximately double the price of the base UCA board without any significant advantage for the end-user. At this time, I’ll stick on the Spartan-6 as they’re the perfect FPGA for the UCA, but I will probably start working on a completely redesigned Spartan-7 base board as a last-resort backup solution.

Here is for the bad thing. Stay tuned for better news tomorrow and even more throughout the week!

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