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Moore’s Law is Dead – (Part 4) Why?

We forgot Moore merely meant that IC performance would always improve (Part 4 of 4)

IC marketing must convince customers to design ICs into electronic products. In 1965, when Gordon Moore first told the world that IC component counts would double in each new product generation, the main competition for ICs was discrete chips. Moore needed a marketing tool to convince early customers to commit to using ICs, and the best measure of an IC was simply the component count. When Moore updated his “Law” in 1975 (see Part 1 of this series for more details), ICs had clearly won the battle with discretes for logic and memory functions, but most designs still had only single-digit thousands of transistors so increases in the raw counts still conveyed the idea of better chips.

MooresLaw_1965_graphFor almost 50 years, “Moore’s Law” doubling of component counts was a reasonable proxy for better ICs. Also, if we look at Moore’s original graph from 1965 (right), we see that for a given manufacturing technology generation there is a minimal cost/component at a certain component count. “What`s driven the industry is lower cost,” said Moore in 1997. “The cost of electronics has gone down over a million-fold in this time period, probably ten million-fold, actually. While these other things are important, to me the cost is what has made the technology pervasive.”

Fast forward to today, and we have millions of transistors working in combinations of “standard cell” blocks of pre-defined functionalities at low cost. Graphics Processor Units (GPU) and other Application Specific Integrated Circuits (ASIC) take advantage of billions of components to provide powerful functionalities at low cost. Better ICs today are measured not by mere component counts, but by performance metrics such as graphics rendering speed or FLOPS.

The limits of lithography (detailed in Part 2 of this blog series) mean that further density improvements will be progressively more expensive, and the atomic limits of physical reality (detailed in Part 3) impose a hard-stop on density at ~1000x of today’s leading-edge ICs. “If we say we can`t improve the density anymore because we run up against all these limitations, then we lose that factor and we`re left with increasing the die size,” said Moore in 1997.

Since the cost of an IC is proportional to the die size, and since the cost/area of lithographic patterning is not decreasing with tighter design-rules, increasing the die size will almost certainly increase cost proportionally. We may not need larger dice with more transistors, however, as future markets for ICs may be better served by the same number of transistors integrated with new functionalities.

International R&D center IMEC knows as well as any organization the challenges of pushing lithography and junction-formation and ohmic contacts to atomic limits. In the 2014 Imec Technology Forum, held the first week of June in Brussels, president and chief executive officer Luc Van den hove’s keynote address focused on the applications of ICs into communications, energy, health-care, security, and transportation applications.

TI has been making ICs since they were co-invented by Kilby in 1959, and over a decade ago TI made a conscious decision to stop chasing ever-smaller digital. First it outsourced digital chip fabrication to foundries, and in 2012 began retiring digital communications chips. Without continually shrinking components, how has TI managed to survive? By focusing on design and integration of analog components, in the most recent financial quarter the company posted 58% gross margin on $3.29B in sales.

At The ConFab last month, Dr. Gary Patton, vice president, semiconductor research and development center at IBM, said there is a bright future in microelectronics (as documented at Pete’s Posts blog).

The commercial semiconductor manufacturing industry will see only continued revenue growth in the future. We will process more area of silicon ICs each year, in support of shipping an ever increasing number of chips worldwide. More fabs will be built needing more tools and an increasing number of new materials.

Moreover, next generation chips will be faster or smaller or cheaper or more functional, and so will better serve the needs of new downstream customers. ASICs and 3D heterogeneous chip stacks will create new IC product categories leading to new market opportunities. Personalized health care could be the next revolution in information technologies, requiring far more sensors and communications and memory and logic chips. With a billion components, the possibilities for new designs to create new IC functionalities seems endless.

However, we are past the era when the next chips will be simultaneously faster and smaller and cheaper and more functional. We have to accept the end of Dennard Scaling and the economic limits of optical lithography. Still, we should remember what Gordon Moore meant in 1965 when he first talked about the future of IC manufacturing, because one factor remains the same:

The next generation of commercial IC chips will be better.

Past posts in the blog series:

Moore’s Law is Dead – (Part 1) What defines the end.

Moore’s Law is Dead – (Part 2) When we reach economic limits,

Moore’s Law is Dead – (Part 3) Where we reach atomic limits.

Future posts in this blog will ruminate about new materials, designs, and technologies for next 50 years of IC manufacturing.

E.K.

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