fb-pixel Skip to main content

Boston tech companies see sales hit from chip shortage

GE, iRobot, and others say their growth is being held back.

Colin Angle, cofounder and CEO of iRobot, best known for the Roomba vacuum cleaner.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

The global shortage of semiconductor chips that has plagued the car industry and held up orders of everything from laptops to gaming consoles is also slowing the local economy. Several of the Boston area’s largest tech companies and manufacturers have cited the chip shortage as cutting into sales, which in turn could depress hiring, new investments, and tax revenues.

With the chip industry unable to bring new factories online quickly, the shortage is now hitting markets ranging from robotics to airplane parts.

“The supply side of our business is not currently able to keep pace with demand for our products,” iRobot chief executive Colin Angle told analysts on a recent earnings call. “It only takes one component to stop you from building a robot.”


As a result, the Bedford-based maker of the popular Roomba line of vacuums said it was cutting its sales forecast for the year to between $1.55 billion and $1.62 billion. That’s as much as $120 million less than iRobot forecast in May.

At General Electric, chip shortages have delayed the production of the company’s line of military gear including avionics and power systems for airplanes and helicopters, according to CEO Larry Culp.

“We don’t like the forgone revenue,” Culp told analysts last month. “More importantly we’re late with the customer in a number of instances.”

Overall revenue at GE rose 9 percent to $18.3 billion last quarter, while revenue in the company’s aviation unit that included military gear increased 10 percent to $4.8 billion. Analysts were expecting stronger growth from the segment, which is bouncing back this year as airlines recover from the COVID travel collapse.

The chip shortages have come about as demand for products like laptops and computer monitors exploded during the pandemic, while sales of cars and trucks declined less than manufacturers initially anticipated. The result is a shortage of capacity to make all kinds of semiconductors, from the most complex and expensive chips to even the simplest and cheapest, said Harvard Business School professor Willy Shih, an expert on technology manufacturing and supply chain management.


“For a lot of these chips, you’re not even talking about something very expensive, maybe 50 cents or a buck, but you only need one missing chip somewhere to hold things up,” he said. “And it’s complicated because if you reallocate capacity from one product to another, you’re taking away from somebody else.”

The industry is racing to build more chip manufacturing plants to meet the demand, but each plant costs billions of dollars and takes several years to come online.

That’s leaving local companies hanging for the moment. The shortages are expected to last at least through the end of the year and possibly into 2022.

At Cognex in Natick, sales have been setting records but could be even higher if there were more of the chips the company needs to build its machine vision systems, which are used in everything from manufacturing cars to sorting packages in warehouses.

“We’re facing the most difficult supply chain environment I’ve experienced in my 13 years at Cognex,” chief executive Robert Willett told analysts last week. The result is “a large increase in backlogs and delays in getting some orders out of the door. We would probably have grown 5 percent faster in the quarter if we’d been in a normal supply chain environment.”


Still, Cognex’s second-quarter revenue totaled $269 million, the highest for any three-month period in the company’s 40-year history and 59 percent higher than last year’s second quarter.

There’s some irony that Entegris is getting hit by chip shortages, too. The Billerica-based company makes some of the most important components in the semiconductor manufacturing process, such as the filtration systems for chip-factory clean rooms. So as the world tries to build more plants to make more chips, Entegris’s business is booming. But it still needs chips to build its own products.

“In this constrained industry environment, every day is a battle and likely will be for a while,” chief executive Bertrand Loy told analysts on a recent earnings call. The company’s sales in the second quarter increased 27 percent to $571 million.

Sometimes, the problems from shortages don’t even have to do with making more products to sell.

“It’s hard to find electronics,” Loy said. “We’ve been hiring a lot of new members of our teams, and it’s really hard to get them PCs on time.”

Aaron Pressman can be reached at aaron.pressman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @ampressman.