Meteor beats chip supply shortage

Meteor Inkjet has taken an interesting approach to the worldwide shortage of computer chips by developing a new electronics platform that’s less reliant on the specialised chips it was using.

Meteor Inkjet has developed this new Printer Controller Card 2, having had to source new chips.

Meteor has suffered from the same problems that most other printer manufacturers have had since its printer controller cards – or PCC – that are used to drive various printheads all use an electronic chip that’s now in short supply. 

Meteor was using a specific Field Programmable Device (FPD) array from Intel that also included a microcontroller. This is a highly specialised chip as most use one or the other. The difference is that a micro processor is a multipurpose circuit that can follow instructions and come up with different results according to the data input whereas an FPD is configured to do just one thing, but it will do that one thing very quickly. Combining the two functions made for a very neat device, but that complexity also meant that it would be one of the last items to return to normal supply. 

That put Meteor in a tricky position so the company took a risk, selected an FPD chip from Intel and then had to commit to a year’s supply to ensure it didn’t run into further supply problems before knowing if this solution would actually work.

Clive Ayling, Meteor’s managing director, explains: “Then we had to design a board to use it. This time we had the big FPD chip and then we had to source a separate micro processor and make that talk to it. There were quite a few layers plus a lot of testing around it to see that each bit worked.”

Fortunately, Meteor was able to test it with the British press manufacturer Dantex Digital. Ayling says: “it was a big advantage having someone in the UK to test it. We did ship them off to other people but it was nice to have someone local.”

This has resulted in a new PCC2 print controller that is now shipping in production quantities. Meteor couldn’t risk offering customers an inferior version so the new PCC2 has the potential to be faster than the older version. Ayling explains: “Most customers would not benefit because the old one does what they needed it to. So most customers will use the new one at the same level as the old one because that’s all that they need.”

He added: “We weren’t aiming to make improvements but in some areas it’s the same but could be better with further development. And in some areas it’s both better and faster, and in all areas it’s faster.”

That means that if Intel is able to resume supplies of its original chip then Meteor could go back to using that, and develop the new controller further for those customers that do want improved performance. But as Ayling notes: “At the moment the market needs supply not performance improvements.”

Jonathan Wilson, Meteor’s vice president of business development, commented: “Our customer base, having grown over the last decade to make Meteor the largest datapath supplier in the industry, had to wait for us to find a solution to what continues to be the worst chip supply shortage ever. I am delighted that their patience is now being rewarded, and we will quickly clear the order backlog that developed over the last two quarters.”

Ayling concluded: “It is a source of immense pride for everyone at Meteor that this enormous task has been achieved. In particular, praise is due to our engineering team in Cambridge who pivoted their attention to this one project which has resulted in a robust, backward-compatible replacement product for our customers in record time.”

It’s worth noting that manufacturers in all sectors are still facing considerable supply chain problems, with shortages of computer chips likely to persist for a couple more years because of the time that it takes to set up a silicon fab to produce them.  

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