The VLSI revolution

Can we all imagine a day without our smart phones? Or stop using washing machines and televisions and other consumer electronics?

Most of us can’t. It’s not very surprising, since we live in a world that’s constantly going through a technological revolution every ten years. This article is about one of the most important job-oriented fields for electronic engineers, the world of VLSI. The consumer electronics without which our lives would be boring was born due to this technology.

Most of us are aware that the first forms of ICs were the flip flops that were invented by Jack Kilby, and over the years electronic components have undergone a major transformation- from using simple and bulky vacuum tubes to the more effective semiconductors. But in the past, as the consumer demand grew, it became difficult for engineers to accommodate more circuits. Thus, the art of integration of circuits was developed.

For those of you wondering as to how this field yields jobs and what kind of sectors apply this technology, here’s a small example. We will look at the process of VLSI fabrication in the most popular industry, the SMART PHONE industry.

Smart Phone:
When we take any smart phone and dismantle it, on the rear side we are most likely to fine the GPS antenna, MIMO (multiple input multiple output) and WIFI. Next, inside we can find the battery and the black frame that covers the adjacent parts of the battery. Sometimes they come in two parts joined together by screws. Once the mid-frame is removed the entire motherboard becomes visible. They come with metal sheets or plates which are basically heat sinks for the ICs at the bottom. The motherboard houses the front and the rear camera. The motherboard of most of the consumer electronic devices look extremely complicated. Both sides of the motherboard contain a lot of integrated circuits.

For example, some basic chips that could be present are power management IC, envelope cracking IC, routing switch (for your internet connection) and a few power amplifiers. There is also a flash storage for memory (although in the older versions of a cell phone it could have had EEPROMS or EPROMS, but flash is extremely popular now.) In most of the phones these days, the faulty ICs cannot be replaced individually, and hence any problem with the ICs requires changing of the entire motherboard. They are fabricated using the VLSI technology, manufactured and assembled in various parts of the world.

The process in brief:
Let’s take a small tour of this process. Let’s say we enter a semiconductor company that’s been manufacturing chips. What goes into the process? First, it starts with circuit designing and addressing the requirements.
Then the base has to be made ready. Silicon wafers are obtained from silica (sand) and after all the initial cleaning process is done, they are sent for further manufacturing. The designed circuit is copied onto the wafer by a ‘photolithographic’ process.

Some of the steps are as follows:

  1. Circuit design
  2. Definition of architecture
  3. Identification of interconnection
  4. Logic design (RTL description)
  5. Physical design
  6. Packaging after manufacturing

These steps are just a small idea of the process, whereas the original technology has a lot of work to be done. Therefore, the future of VLSI and associated technology looks bright enough, and as long as the number of transistors increase every two years (as Gordon Moore predicted) and as long as the consumer demand keeps growing this sector will continue to grow and flourish.

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