Miniaturization has been driving technological improvements

Miniaturization has been the bane of repair technicians for many years, especially for older one’s like me with degrading eyesight and poor hand-eye coordination. Although through the use of cheater glasses, and remembering to exhale while doing intricate soldering on surface mount components helps me in the repair process, I miss the good old days of really big components! Working on the old console model stereo and televisions use to be easy, if an old stereo developed a hum, you would replace a can style capacitor about a quarter the size of a can of soda pop. We are talking big point-to-point wired components. Ahh yes, the good old days… Another problem that makes life miserable for old repair technicians like me, is that we can’t throw anything away. If it’s broken, we fix it. My laptop is a 12 year old Gateway running Windows XP, and it runs slow as molasses. A few days ago it went completely dead. Great, I thought, I can justify buying a new laptop… but first, I should have a look at it. That was a big mistake! I found a problem on the motherboard due to a shorted capacitor shutting down the power supply. I replaced the part, and the old Gateway is running again, albeit with no WiFi at the moment, since I had to remove the card temporarily until I can order a surface mount capacitor. In the picture the 220uF replacement is a typical normal size component, but the small orange rectangular object to its side is the shorted part that had to be replaced. 220uF is a substantial amount of capacitance to get into the typical part that is acting as the temporary replacement, much less the surface mount part 1/20th its size. But that is part of the miniaturization that has driven technological advancement to the point at which we find ourselves today. What is even more fantastic is looking toward the bottom of the picture and seeing the surface mount transistors labeled Q20 and Q21, I find them very small, but knowing that the highest scale integration in a top-of-the-line computer processor today contains the equivalent of over 7 Billion transistors is mind blowing.

Moore’s Law states that the number of transistors in a processor doubles just about every two years. Even in the more typical Intel I7 processor, we are currently at over 2 Billion transistors. The technology of miniaturization is just completely phenomenal and responsible for all the really cool devices we have today, like the cell phone I used to take the picture for this blog post. In a processor (sometimes called a CPU), the transistors mainly act as on/off switches and do addition and manipulation of data. The more of them that there are, leads to more and faster data processing. The miniaturization process has been using photolithography, which is essentially making circuit masking transparencies smaller and smaller, almost with the same concept of how you can produce a miniaturized printed document on a copy machine. But, light waves have their limits, as due UV rays, so we will reach a limit soon, causing Moore’s Law to no longer be true.

Tool development and tool use have been ingrained into our genes through evolution, and research and development is underway into such esoteric processes as quantum computing and nanotechnology. As I grow old, I hope for reincarnation to see what comes next, because humankind’s advancements won’t stop, even as we reach the limits of today’s miniaturization technology.

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