The older I get, the more futuristic the number of the year seems to be—2017 already! Where the heck is my flying car and attentive robotic assistant? Despite some of our most cherished technology predictions turning out to be wrong, many of them have materialized, and I’m not giving up on the flying car just yet. I never forget that you, our engineering readership, are the minds creating the designs that bring the future into existence.
Speaking of futuristic, both of our feature articles this month deal with some on-the-edge technologies. Ryan Curran writes about improving signal chain density using system-in-package (SiP) technology in an ADC that is a virtual data acquisition system in a single package. And that package is pretty small, just 5 mm × 4 mm! In the second feature, Zhou Wei discusses pushing the limits of high definition video transmission in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, such as drones)—unquestionably a futuristic topic.
Many, if not most, of our feature articles these days have to do in some way with high levels of IC integration. The major design themes have become lower power consumption, faster speeds, and more and more performance in smaller and smaller packages. But how small can semiconductors get? Scaling is the basic economic factor in the world of semiconductors—tinier and tinier dimensions—and nowadays we in the industry throw around terms like 14-nanometer IC process like there’s nothing to it. Today’s state-of-the-art computer chips can contain more than seven billion transistors on 14-nanometer chips. Once in a while, we need to step back and clue-in on exactly what we’re talking about here—a nanometer is a billionth of a meter!
When talking about a scale that is so far removed from our everyday life of stuff that we can see and hold, I always find it helpful to use relative analogies. A human hair is about 75,000 nanometers thick. The relationship between a mile and an inch is similar in scale to that between a human hair and a nanometer. Does that help any? Atoms and very small molecules span a full nanometer in width, while a human red blood cell is relatively vast with 6000 to 8000 nanometers across. The fact that our semiconductor processes are manipulating matter at these scales, where quantum physics start to rule, boggles my mind. What’s next? Five nanometers by 2020 or new fabrication materials? Undoubtedly devices will keep getting smaller, consume less power, and perform at higher levels. And engineers will keep doing things that boggle our minds.
As we celebrate the dawn of another year, many thanks to our readers for pushing those limits and creating the future!