Mind-boggling technology taken for granted
June 23, 2016
Things to think about when holding that communication device in your hand.
It seems simple enough. We punch a few buttons or spots on the plastic face and can communicate instantaneously across town or worldwide. No big deal? Well, consider a few facts about how we got here:
- $8 billion factories
- A staff of thousands with special knowledge
- Silicon wafers
- Transistor miniaturization
- Nanometer technology
- Etchings and deposits – 2,000 times
- Slicing and dicing
- Particle-free air
- Memory controllers
- Input/output circuits
- Cores (chips within chips)
I remember working at Western Electric Company back in the 1960s as a production programmer and later, while attending college, as a machine setter in the plant manufacturing electron tubes. Western Electric was the manufacturing and supply unit for the Bell System, a division of AT&T. They were on the cutting edge of communication technology at that time, slicing silicon wafers and manufacturing transistors in their early stages of development, among many other electronic components, including resistance lamps and cathode-ray tubes. A transistor is a switch which is turned off and on by electronic pulses instead of manually, one of the important early components of electronic miniaturization, a single function on-off switch. Western Electric had one of the early clean rooms, into which you couldn’t enter except under strict conditions of cleanliness and sterility.
In later years, after a stint in the military and then a return to the company in an office role, I encountered one of the early computer rooms, with large main frame computer processors, card readers and tape readers, all located in a large enclosed room. There was a constant stream of trays of cards being transported in and out of the computer room to record data in the archaic way that computerization was done in those early days. Punched slots in cards served as the on-off switches, which were later replaced with transistors.
The technology seemed amazing at the time but much more was soon to come as this technology evolved.
Now computerization is accomplished by silicon chips with a myriad of minute circuitry which is barely visible, if at all, by the naked eye. If you want to manufacture silicon chips you will first need to spend about $8 billion building a factory capable of the process. Then you start with a 12-inch silicon wafer, which costs about $300, create patterns on the wafer with photolithography and deposit super-thin layers of material on top of the wafer. These wafers are cleaned with the purest form of water possible. So pure that it could not be safely consumed by humans because it would absorb the nutrients from the body. This wafer is chopped into 122 Xeon E5 chips, which sell for $4,000 each. Each E5 chip has as many as 7.2 billion transistors. (Yes, 7.2 billion on-off switches). The chip in the original IBM PC had 29,000 transistors. It takes about three months to manufacture a single E5 chip. It requires about 2,000 steps of etching and depositing layers of materials, sometimes as thin as a single atom. The 12-inch wafer, when finished, will be worth more than $300,000.
A human blood cell is 7,000 nanometers across. Chip manufacturing works on a 14 nanometer scale, a tiny fraction of the size of a human blood cell. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter. (39.37 inches divided by one billion – 39.37” ÷ 1,000,000,000 = .00000003739 inches). That is getting very small, not visible by the naked eye.
It takes five years to make a new computer server chip. It takes about three years for that chip to become obsolete. A chip design needs to generate $3 billion over the first two years to be economically viable.
In research and development and capital expenditures, it costs more to make a chip than to make an airplane.
A human brain has 10 billion neurons. By 2026 or so, someone said, your computer will have more than 10 billion transistors.
Think about it when you hold that personal data phone in your hand. How can they do all this amazing stuff and make it available to every living human in 50 years?
Think about it!