Semiconductor, microchip shortages play havoc with laser rangefinder industry

·6 min read

This week, the PGA Championship is making its second trip to The Ocean Course at Kiawah, Pete Dye’s fiendishly challenging track along the South Carolina coast. It meanders over, around and through dunes, but unlike the last time the Wannamaker Trophy was handed out at this windswept venue in 2012, the pros will be carrying extra technology.

In February, the PGA of America announced that players can use distance-measuring devices during tournament rounds for the first time in a major at the 2021 PGA Championship.

“We’re always interested in methods that may help improve the flow of play during our championships,” said Jim Richerson, the president of the PGA of America, last winter. “The use of distance-measuring devices is already common within the game and is now a part of the Rules of Golf. Players and caddies have long used them during practice rounds to gather relevant yardages.”

So now, instead of pacing off distances from sprinkler heads, players and caddies will be able to zap the flag to get a precise yardage to the flag, then refer to the daily hole location sheet to work out the distance to the front and back of the green.

However, it is ironic that as laser rangefinders are primed to get more exposure than ever, a looming semiconductor and microchip shortage is playing havoc with the industry. Companies ranging from start-ups to industry leaders are haggling with suppliers, delaying the release of new models and pushing back innovations that would otherwise be in pro shops already.

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods

Tiger Woods uses a rangefinder from his golf cart during a practice round for The Match: Champions For Charity at Medalist Golf Club on May 23, 2020 in Hobe Sound, Florida. (Photo: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images for The Match)

Shortage related to pandemic

Like so many other things, the semiconductor and microchip shortage was caused by a series of events related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, companies worldwide were forced to close, workers stayed home and kids started attending school remotely. Businesses in many industries canceled orders and stopped production because no one knew what the global economy might do. That forced chipmakers to either stop or severely reduce their output.

Then, with more people working and studying from home throughout 2020, the sale of computers, webcams, smartphones and other electronics surged. As robust demand continued throughout 2020 for high-tech products, factories ramped up production but could not keep up.

In an interview on “60 Minutes” that aired in May, Intel’s CEO, Patrick Gelsinger, said, “I think we have a couple of years until we catch up to this surging demand across every aspect of the business. COVID showed that the global supply chain of chips is fragile and unable to react quickly to changes in demand.”

The shortage hurt makers of automobiles, consumer electronics and even, yes, golf laser rangefinders.

While there are subtle differences from one laser rangefinder to another, they work similarly. When you press a button, a laser rangefinder pulses light in a wide beam. When that light hits something, it bounces back to the rangefinder. Microprocessors inside the device measure the time it takes for the light to reflect, and then, using that information, determine the distance to the object. Laser rangefinders with sophisticated processors can do the job faster, but all devices rely on microchips to get the job done.

Bushnell Golf, based in Overland Park, Kansas, is the most popular brand of laser rangefinders on the PGA Tour. Derek Schuman, the company’s senior brand manager, told Golfweek, “I created our sourcing team because they have done a pretty good job of finding some workarounds. We have even helped to solicit going above and beyond our vendors to source and find the chips ourselves.”

Schuman also said the shipments sent in cargo ships from Asia are taking significantly longer to pass through ports and customs in Long Beach, California.

“It’s taking twice as long to get the containers off the ships, and then there are further delays in getting the container on the rail,” he said. “It’s a mess.”

Shot Scope has made a name for itself as a maker of shot-tracking systems and GPS watches. Based in Edinburgh, Scotland, it entered the laser rangefinder market in 2021. Gavin Dear, the company’s chief commercial officer, said Shot Scope recognized the shortage was coming late last spring. It spurred the company to buy enough parts from different distributors to create a stockpile of 40,000 sets of components for its lasers and watches. Those parts are now sitting two miles from its factory.

“We can draw on that at any point over the next two years,” he said, explaining that the stockpile allows Shot Scope to build what it needs when it needs it, while replenishing the inventory separately.

“So we are in a phenomenal position, however, that is because we recognized the shortage was coming early on, and our leadership team has very good links into the distributors,” Dear said.

Based in Cincinnati, Ohio, Precision Pro wanted to release a new laser rangefinder in the first quarter of 2021. The chip shortage and other supply chain issues pushed the timing back to this week. It has also pushed back another product, initially slated for an early-spring release, to September at the earliest.

Joe Skovron
Joe Skovron

Rickie Fowler’s caddie Joe Skovron at 2019 Masters. (David Dusek/Golfweek)

Alex Everhart, Precision Pro’s director of products, said that Qualcomm, the company that provides some of the chips Precision Pro needs, recently notified Precision Pro that it would not be receiving the parts it had ordered.

“It wasn’t that there was a price change. They didn’t say that it was going to be delayed. We were just flat out told that this chip was no longer going to be available,” Everhard said.

That, in turn, necessitated Precision Pro’s engineers to go back to the design and “basically rebuild all the internals based on the newly-available part,” according to Everhard. He said the item now scheduled for a third-quarter release had been redesigned four times because of situations like this.

“It’s like, ‘These are the parts that are available at this time, so let’s start mapping and creating the internals and just hope that by the time this project is actually completed, those chips are still going to be available to us and we don’t have to restart,'” Everhard explained.

For golfers, laser rangefinders are still readily available from numerous brands. Prices have not spiked, but replacing some models may be slower as people buy the inventory in stores.

All the same, Bushnell’s Schuman has a tip for people who might be looking to wait until the end of the year to grab a good deal on a laser.

“We certainly get a significant spike (in sales) around the holidays,” Schuman said. “So if the supply constraints that we anticipate in Q3 lag into Q4, that becomes a problem.”

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