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The Tyranny of Numbers – Why Things Can’t Get Too Big

I was interested in what drove the development of the first integrated circuits, so I was doing some research. In the 1950s, in large electronic systems, system performance was limited by the large number of components that were required. This meant that heat would build up from all of the power being dissipated, which led to reduced reliability. Systems just hit the point of diminishing returns.

One summer, Jack Kilby worked on solving this problem. After several weeks of work, he created the first integrated circuit by building it in Germanium. Three months later, Robert Noyce was able to do the same thing in Silicon independently of Kilby. However, this did not mean that the “tyranny of numbers” went away. Like all great scientific endeavors, it just transformed to a higher level where now the limitations were due to multiple chips.

Fortunately for the semiconductor industry, the development of MOS and CMOS processes with the ability to decrease the feature size led to Moore’s Law — the ability to double the number of transistors on an IC every 18 months. This allowed circuits, especially digital circuits, to increase in complexity, rapidly leading to ever-more sophisticated products from electronic products. Can you imagine what the iPhone would look like without all of the integration that has been done? It would never have worked, even if it was four times as large.

Analog circuitry has not kept up with the digital circuitry. The higher voltages that are required, along with noise coupling between devices, have limited the ability of designers to create larger functions. But customers are increasing the number of analog functions that they want in a system. Whether it is an increase in the number of channels or a suite of added functionality, the “tyranny of numbers” still lurks in these systems. This is driving suppliers to find ways of integrating the analog while still providing the performance needed for the system.

What do you think? Is analog integration new or just part of a long-term continuing trend?

1 comment on “The Tyranny of Numbers – Why Things Can’t Get Too Big

  1. Brad Albing
    January 14, 2013

    Hugh – the point you've raised about high-voltage proceses is a big deal. I've run into this too many times – hoping that there was a device that coul operate at the voltage that it absolutely had to and still have the specs I needed. And we're not even discussing price yet….

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