Since its release in November 2020, the PlayStation 5 has been one of the most in demand games consoles the world has ever seen.
The console quickly sold out when Sony surprise announced pre-orders late last year, and sporadic stock drops are now often snapped up in record time; some by real people, others by ‘bots’ who automatically make purchases on behalf of scalpers taking advantage of demand by reselling them at a marked up price.
It’s not just the PS5 that’s been hit. Microsoft’s rival next-gen consoles the Xbox Series X and S are similarly in short supply, and in the PC gaming space, enthusiasts are finding it hard to get their hands on the latest graphics cards to power new, high-tech games.
So why is this?
Of course, as with most things over the past 12 months, Covid-19 has a large part to play.
With factories shorter staffed up and down the supply chain to maintain social distancing measures, the individual components needed to piece together a complex machine are not as readily available as they may usually have been.
That includes semiconductors, a fundamental element of electronic circuits and devices. In fact, the world is currently experiencing a global shortage of the components.
What is a semiconductor?
A semiconductor is an electronic component that can be found in nearly every electronic device.
Desktop computers, the Internet, tablet devices, and smartphones would all be impossible without semiconductors, which are extensively used in electronic circuits.
As its name implies, a semiconductor conducts current, but only partly.
Commonly made from silicone, they have a conductivity somewhere between that of an insulator, which has almost no conductivity, and a conductor, which has almost full conductivity.
They’re used to control current and power within electronic devices; voltage that a semiconductor doesn’t need can be sent to other electrical components in the device.
Semiconductors can be made very small and many of them can fit into a small circuit, meaning today’s electrical devices can be made thin and lightweight without compromising processing power.
Why is there a shortage?
The current shortage is the result of a number of factors triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Semiconductor shortages typically occur when there is some sociological or physical change that prevents certain chips from being produced in large enough numbers to satisfy demand – a global pandemic will do that.
The crisis has resulted in disruptions to supply chains and logistics which, coupled with an increase in demand for PCs following widesprea stay-at-home orders, has impacted the availability of key chips necessary for the manufacturing of electronics at a time when they are most needed.
Earlier this year, the grounding of the Ever Given ship in the Suez Canal is thought to have contributed to the problem even more.
Normally, the conductors are transported in the holds of passenger planes but, during Covid, the reduction in flight number has forced these companies to turn to ships to supply them.
“Even the smallest input can sometimes bring conveyor belts to a halt because you just need that crucial part, and if it’s stuck in a container, then there’s nothing you can really do about it,” said Joanna Konings, a senior economist and trade expert at banking giant ING.
Tom Fairbairn, an engineer at management platform Solace, said: “With the already tight supply situation for semiconductors, including a water shortage in Taiwan and a plant fire in Japan, the automotive, electronics and IT industries could be especially hard hit.”
When will the shortage end?
In February 2021, market analysts IHS Markit were cited by the BBC as forecasting the impact to last through to the third quarter of 2021, but more recent predictions paint the situation as being more dire.
According to new reports from the world’s largest chipmaker – the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC) – the global shortage could extend into 2022… and beyond.
“In 2023, I hope we can offer more capacity to support our customers,” Chief Executive Officer C.C. Wei told analysts on a conference call. “At that time, we’ll start to see the supply chain tightness release a little bit.”
The situation has become so bad that in the US, President Joe Biden had proposed $50 billion (£36 billion) to support chip manufacturing and research as part of his $2 trillion infrastructure package in an effort to tame the shortage that is particularly hindering the production of automobiles in the country.
When will the PS5 be readily available?
A technology war is being waged between people making bots to snatch highly desirable items like the PS5 and specialists trying to prevent them.
These bots, known as scalper bots, continuously monitor websites for products that are limited in stock.
The moment they become available, the bot has the user’s payment details ready to go, to secure the items within milliseconds, making it near impossible for a human to compete.
Many are then sold on with the intention of turning a profit via sites such as eBay, costing considerably more than their original price. The practice is not illegal, but while the issue is not new, it is gaining more awareness.
As long as there is increased demand for the consoles, there is likely to be bots snatching them up.
So when will the machines be widely available?
"By the time we get to the second half [of 2021], you're going to be seeing really decent numbers indeed," PlayStation boss Jim Ryan told the Financial Times in February.
"Demand was greater than we anticipated,” Ryan told the Washington Post. “That, along with the complexities of the supply chain issues, resulted in a slightly lower supply than we initially anticipated.”
Ryan told GQ that supply “will increase as each month passes”, and that he believes "the situation will start to get better, hopefully quite quickly.
"We have been relentless in terms of trying to increase production,” he added.