Will iPad 2 supplies be hurt by Japanese quake?

Japanese supplies for Apple iPad 2 tablet face logistical challenges

The Apple iPad 2 may be another victim of the Japanese earthquake, warns a technology research firm. The reason: the tablet uses a range of components from Japanese vendors, who face supply, manufacturing, and shipping challenges in the quake's aftermath.

These possible disruptions come as Apple is trying to maintain or even increase iPad 2 supplies to face continued, very strong consumer demand in the U.S. The analysis by IHS iSuppli, based in part on its disassembly of the iPad 2, identifies the tablet's electronic compass, battery, memory chips, and possibly the specialized glass in the display could be in short supply in short order.

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Specifically, the firm's tear-down analysis found five parts from Japanese vendors: NAND flash by Toshiba, dynamic random access memory (DRAM) by Elpida Memory, the electronic compass by AKM Semiconductor, the touch screen's glass overlay sheet, which iSuppli says is "likely" by Asahi Glass, and the tablet's battery, by Apple Japan.

"While some of these suppliers reported that their facilities were undamaged, delivery of components from all of these companies is likely to be impacted at least to some degree by logistical issues now plaguing most Japanese industries in the quake zone," according to iSuppli.

The impact could result from possible difficulties in getting raw materials to manufacture the iPad components and from shipping the finished products out. Another possible problem is employee absences due to transportation system problems.

"The various challenges are being compounded by interruptions in the electricity supply, which can have a major impact on delicate processes, such as semiconductor lithography," according to iSuppli.

Finally, the continued aftershocks are disrupting chipmaking facilities. "Earthquakes ranging from 4 to 7 on the Richter scale will make it impossible to really restart these fabs until the earthquakes stop happening with such frequency," said Dale Ford of HIS iSuppli. "Every time a quake tops 5, the equipment automatically shuts down."

Even if the Japanese suppliers do run into ongoing problems, it's hard to evaluate how great the impact might be on iPad 2 supplies, or how long it might last. That's because companies like Apple routinely have backup suppliers who can step in quickly to make up for shortages or supply chain disruptions.

According to iSuppli, the Toshiba NAND chips could be replaced by products from South Korea's Samsung Electronics, or U.S. memory vendor Micron Technology. Alternatives also exist for the Elpida DRAM.

"The compass and glass supply could prove to be more problematic issues for Apple," according to iSuppli. "Although AKM said its fab that produces the electronic compass used in the iPad was undamaged by the quake, the company's shipments are likely to be impacted by the same logistical issues that will plague all Japanese industries during the short term."

Compasses are available from other sources including Yamaha, Aichi Steel, Alps and STMicroelectronics. But it's not a simple swap, according to iSuppli. "Compasses are sensitive to electromagnetic interference," says Jérémie Bouchaud, director and principal analyst for MEMS and sensors at IHS. "Furthermore, the iPad 2's compass works in close coordination with the tablet's accelerometer and gyroscope. This makes it impossible to simply replace one manufacturer's compass with another."

It's not clear who the glass supplier is for iPad 2, but for various reasons iSuppli thinks it is likely to be Asahi Glass of Japan, which released its new, durable Dragontail Glass technology at the same time as the iPad 2 was announced. According to iSuppli, three Asahi Glass facilities were reported damaged.

The lithium-ion polymer battery in the iPad 2 also is manufactured in Japan, despite the fact the whole battery pack is labeled as "assembled in China," according to iSuppli, which says the extra-thin lithium-ion polymer battery itself is built by Apple Japan, which operates as a subsidiary of Apple.

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.

Twitter: http://twitter.com/johnwcoxnww

Blog RSS feed: http://www.networkworld.com/community/blog/2989/feed

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