There are a few truisms in the technology world, and one of them is that storage always gets faster and cheaper. Over the long term, that will undoubtedly stay true, but in the near and medium term traditional hard drive storage is facing a major problem: Record flooding in Thailand. The deluge has forced Western Digital and Toshiba to shut down their hard drive manufacturing facilities in Pathum Thani province, near Bangkok, and hard drive motor supplier Nidec has also been significantly impacted — and it supplies motors for a huge range of hard drives produced by many manufacturers.
The upshot is that hard drives are likely to be in relatively short supply throughout the end of 2011 and going into 2012, and this will impact the availability and pricing of everything from notebook and desktop computers to media players, set-top boxes, and stand-alone hard drives.
How long will the problem last, and how bad will the price hikes be?
Thailand is no stranger to heavy rains and flooding, but the country is currently experiencing its worst flooding in 50 years, brought on by heavy monsoon rains that have been pounding southeast Asia since July. So far, more than 350 people have been killed and well over 120,000 displaced as floodwaters crept towards the capital. Although Bangkok itself is still largely untouched, the government has urged all residents to move valuables to higher ground, triggering a run on food, supplies, and bottled water. And the flooding isn't expected to ease up anytime soon: Current estimates don't have the floodwaters receding in many areas until mid-December.
Among the areas hit with the flooding is the Pathum Thani province near Bangkok, which is home to a number of high-tech manufacturing operations. In the mix: hard drive manufacturing plants belonging to Toshiba and Western Digital. The Western Digital facility is its primary plant in Thailand, and the company has said last week its secondary Thai site at the Navanakorn Industrial Park was also at risk. Toshiba was initially hopeful that it would be able to get back into its hard disk facility this week, but said today that as much as a meter and a half of water is currently in the buildings, and it has no idea when it will be able to resume operations. Facilities operated by Hitachi GST (which is currently the subject of an acquisition effort from Western Digital) and Seagate are so far unaffected.
It's one thing for a few major hard drive plants to go offline: It could cause supply chain disruptions, but most major manufacturers have fabs in Malaysia, China, Indonesia, Singapore, and even the United States to limit their geographic exposure. And, indeed, Western Digital and Toshiba are both shifting as much production as possible to other plants. However, the Thai flooding is also impacting component suppliers, most notably Nidec: Nidec makes small motors used in things like cars refrigerators, cameras, photocopiers, and, yes, hard drives — along with hard drive base plates. The company says two of its plants in Thailand's Ayutthaya province are flooded and shut down, and Nidec has suspended operations at almost all its Thailand facilities. Nidec is that it is already working to resume operations at one plant in Rangsit that produces hard drive motors, and one facatory that makes hard drive base plates is still running. However, Nidec's woes could have a ripple effect across the industry: estimates from DisplaySearch and iSuppli have Nidec making the motors used in 70 to 80 percent of the world's hard drives. Nidec's major clients include Seagate, Toshiba, Western Digital, and Hitachi.
Other hard drive component manufacturers impacted by the flooding include TDK, MMI, Furukawa, and Hutchinson Technology. Hutchinson supplies hard drive harnesses for a number of manufacturers; TDK makes suspension assemblies, MMI makes electrical components, and Furukawa makes everything from wire and heat sinks to drive platters.
Thailand is the second only to China in hard drive production. The impact of the flooding will likely curtail the availability of hard drives worldwide, leaving computer makers like HP, Lenovo, Dell, Acer, and Apple to scramble for supply and possibly change the specifications and availability of systems they offer consumers.
How bad will it be? iSuppli estimates that about 60 percent of Western Digital's hard drive production is located in Thailand, along with about 50 percent of Toshiba's hard drive production. As of the second quarter of this year, Western Digital and Toshiba were the number one and number four manufacturers of hard drives in the world, in terms of unit shipments. During that quarter, those two companies along shipped more than 40 million hard drives out of their Thai facilities, accounting for about one quarter of the worldwide hard drive production in the quarter. So, at a minimum, it would be reasonable to expect hard drive production during the remainder of 2011 — and likely extending into the first quarter of 2012 — will be as much as 25 percent lower than expected.
Of course, there are other factors to consider: Western Digital and Toshiba can shift some manufacturing operations to other facilities that are still intact, and other manufacturers may be able to ramp up production to take advantage of WD's and Toshiba's situation. However, not all hard drive facatories are made the same, and it's not possible to completely shift all production to different facilities, even if companies can get supplies and components together at the new locations.
Components will be a whole separate issue — one that impacts more than Western Digital and Toshiba. Seagate, Hitachi, and Samsung may not have damage to their facilities, but without parts their own hard drive production will be curtailed. Based on conference calls Western Digital and Seagate held with investors last week, the best estimates seem to be that hard drive production during the remainder of 2011 will be off by anywhere from 20 to 40 million drives, or an overall decline in of about 10 to 20 percent in unit shipments.
Of course, once the floodwaters recede, hard drive makers and component manufacturers aren't going to just be able to walk back into their fabs, flip a switch, and get back to work. Depending on the damage, the facilities may remain offline for some time as companies repair and replace expensive manufacturing and process equipment—which means hard drive shortages will continue for some time after floodwaters recede, and manufacturers will incur significant costs to get back online.
The impact on computer makers and consumers
Computer makers have some inventory on hand — typically about three to five weeks' worth — and they are already pushing finished products into their distribution chains for the holiday rush. So, odds are, the end-of-year gift-giving season won't be tremendously impacted by the hard drive shortage. So consumers will probably see the first impacts right at the end of the year and going into 2012.
Consumer products might find some relief in flash storage: while the iPod Classic still uses a hard drive, most media players these days use flash memory, as do most tablets, cameras, and smartphones. Similarly, many notebooks and netbooks—and ultraportables like the MacBook Air—use flash storage and won't be significantly impacted by hard drive shortages. However, on a gig-for-gig basis, flash memory remains substantially more expensive than its traditional hard drives. Traditional hard drives now routinely handle multi-terabyte capacities for under $100, where 1 TB SSDs start near $2,000.
Companies that make their money off data centers are likely to feel a punch, since the vast majority of data center storage is hard drive-based. This includes not just enterprise and corporate services like those offered by EMC, HP, Dell, SAP, Oracle, and other companies, but also consumer-facing cloud services from giants like Amazon, Netflix, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, and Google. These large operations tend to get preferential treatment from hard drive manufacturers because they buy in such large volumes, which means consumer products are more likely to get pinched.
Hard drives also represent a significant portion of the cost of a notebook or desktop computer: from about 8 to 10 percent of the bill of materials for a typical notebook, and about 10 to 15 percent for a desktop. In loose terms, then, every 10 percent increase in the price of a hard drive translates roughly a 1 percent increase in the overall cost of a computer. In markets like netbooks and consumer notebooks, where profit margins are often 5 percent or less, that matters. A 10-percent increase in hard drive prices could be a 20-percent reduction in a product's revenue for computer makers.
Reduced supply coupled with high capital expenditures means one thing in the near term: Hard drive prices are going to go up, and that will have a ripple effect across the industry. If computer makers are supply constrained, and can't make as many systems as they think they could sell, they will have no choice but to raise prices on the computers they can make to meet revenue goals. If limits on hard drive availability mean a computer maker can only make (say) 80 to 90 percent of the number of systems it originally planned, prices for those systems would have to be 11 to 25 percent higher for the manufacturers to maintain the same level of revenue and keep their investors happy.
That's before factoring in increases in hard drive prices. If hard drive costs increase 10 percent, that will drive up prices for low-margin products as much as another 20 percent. So, a netbook that costs $300 today could suddenly find itself approaching $400, between increased costs and revenue pressure from supply constraints.
That kind of price increase can seem very alarming, but remember these numbers are estimates, and assume all other things are equal. All other things are decidedly not equal. Manufacturers may be able to achieve efficiencies in other areas that can keep costs down. Maybe processors, LCD screens, or memory become less expensive in the meantime, or they're able to shave some costs off their manufacturing process with new designs or materials. Maybe they can get a great distribution deal that substantially lowers shipping and transportation costs. And there's always marketing to consider: consumer sticker shock at a big price increase could significantly dampen sales, so computer makers might accept lower margins — or look at bundles or other ways to increase the value of the computers — to ease the pain. So don't expect prices for everything with a hard drive to increase by one third, but do expect them to go up.