Introduction to integrated circuit technology

There is no doubt that our daily lives are significantly affected by electronic engineering technology. This is true:-

We are accustomed to being exposed to, and to coming to terms with quite sophisticated electronic devices and systems. There is no doubt that revolutionary changes have taken place in a very short time. Furthermore, the revolutionary advances in technology have not yet by any means run their full course and the potential for future developments is exciting to say the least.

Electronics as we know it today is characterised by:-

Integrated circuit technology, has made possible the design of powerful and flexible processors which provide highly intelligent and adaptable devices for the user. Integrated circuit memories have provided the essential elements to complement these processors and, together with a wide range of logic and analogue integrated circuitry,

The beginning of the revolution


A device called a transistor, which has several applications in radio where a vacuum tube ordinarily is employed, was demonstrated for the first time yesterday at Bell Telephone Laboratories, 463 West Street, where it was invented. (23rd December 1947)


Jack Kilby, a young electrical engineer at Texas Instruments, figured out how to put all the circuit elements - transistors, resistors, and capacitors, along with their interconnecting wiring - into a single piece of germanium. His rough prototype was a thin piece of germanium about one-half inch long containing five separate components linked together by tiny wires.

(Kilby's circuit was an awkward looking thing, very hard to manufacture). Commercial integrated circuit production had to await the development of the improved manufacturing methods for silicon devices, and for interconnecting them with deposited Al, all based on carefully controlled chemical, physical and optical (photographic) processes, which led to the monolithic integrated circuit.

Since that time there have already been four generations of ICs: SSI (small scale integration), MSI (medium scale integration), LSI (large scale integration), and VLSI (very large scale integration), all of these being fuelled by an unrelenting drive towards greater and greater miniaturisation.

A brief review of the history of the microprocessor using Intel products as examples.

Intel = INTegrated Electronics

Robert Noyce & Gordon Moore establish Intel in Santa Clara, California.

Intel produces the first 1K RAM (random access memory).

Intel (Ted Hoff) invents Intel's first microprocessor (4004), roughly equal in power to ENIAC. The 4-bit 4004 ran at 108 kHz & contained 2300 transistors. The speed of this 1971 device is estimated at 0.06 MIPS (million instructions/s). By comparison, Intel's new P6 runs at 133 MHz, contains 5.5 million transistors, and executes 300 MIPS. This breakthrough invention powered the Busicom calculator and paved the way for embedding intelligence in inanimate objects as well as the personal computer.

The 8008 microprocessor was twice as powerful as the 4004. According to the magazine Radio Electronics, Don Lancaster, a dedicated computer hobbyist, used the 8008 to create a predecessor to the first personal computer, basically a dumb terminal based on a TV.

The 8080 microprocessor became the brains of the first personal computer--the Altair. Computer hobbyists could purchase a kit for the Altair for $395. Within months, it sold tens of thousands, creating the first PC back orders in history.

A pivotal sale to IBM's new personal computer division made the 8088 microprocessor the brains of IBM's new hit product--the IBM PC. The 8088's success propelled Intel into the ranks of the Fortune 500, and Fortune magazine named the company one of the "Business Triumphs of the Seventies."

IBM PC was released. In April the UK government launches a Ģ4 million Micros in Schools scheme.

The 80286 was the first Intel processor that could run all the software written for its predecessor. This software compatibility remains a hallmark of Intel's family of microprocessors. Within 6 years of it release, there were an estimated 15 million 286-based personal computers installed around the world.

The Intel 80386 microprocessor featured 275,000 transistors--more than 100times as many as the original 4004. It was a 32-bit chip and was "multi tasking," meaning it could run multiple programs at the same time.

The Intel 486TM processor (shown) was the first to offer a built-in math coprocessor, which speeds up computing because it offers complex math functions from the central processor, greatly speeding up transcendental functions.  "The '486 generation really meant you go from a command-level computer into point-and-click computing. I could have a colour computer for the first time and do desktop publishing at a significant speed," recalls technology historian David K. Allison [Smithsonian's National Museum of American History].

The PentiumŪ processor allowed computers to more easily incorporate "real world" data such as speech, sound, handwriting and photographic images. The name PentiumŪ has now became a household word.

Released in the fall of 1995 the PentiumŪ Pro processor was designed to fuel 32-bit server and workstation-level applications, enabling fast computer-aided design, mechanical engineering and scientific computation. Each PentiumŪ Pro processor was packaged together with a second speed-enhancing cache memory chip. The powerful PentiumŪ Pro processor boasts 5.5 million transistors.

The 7.5 million-transistor PentiumŪ II processor incorporates Intel MMX technology, which is designed specifically to process video, audio and graphics data efficiently. It is packaged along with a high-speed cache memory chip in an innovative Single Edge Contact (S.E.C.) cartridge that connects to a motherboard via a single edge connector, as opposed to multiple pins. With this chip, PC users can capture, edit and share digital photos with friends and family via the Internet; edit and add text, music or between-scene transitions to home movies; and, with a video phone, send video over standard phone lines and the Internet.

Moore's Law

Silicon technology has become the dominant fabrication process for relatively high performance and cost effective VLSI circuits.

Such has been the potential of the silicon integrated circuit that in less than three decades, the number of transistors (as a measure of complexity) being integrated into circuits on a single silicon chip has risen from tens to millions, as can be seen in the Figure.

Scale of Integration  

Number of devices


Zero Scale Integration




Small Scale Integration




Medium Scale Integration




Large Scale Integration




Very Large Scale Integration




Ultra Large Scale Integration




Giga- Scale Integration




Tera- Scale Integration




Now we are beginning to see the emergence of the fifth generation, ULSI (ultra large scale integration), which is characterised by complexities in excess of 5 million devices on a single IC chip. Further miniaturisation is still to come, and more revolutionary advances. The figure sets out what has become known as 'Moore's first law' after predictions made by Gordon Moore (of Intel) in the 1960s. It may be seen that his predictions held true with remarkable accuracy, right up to the 1980s.


What is Moore's Law?

In 1965, Gordon Moore was preparing a speech and made a memorable observation. When he started to graph data about the growth in memory chip performance, he realized there was a striking trend. Each new chip contained roughly twice as much capacity as its predecessor, and each chip was released within 18-24 months of the previous chip. If this trend continued, he reasoned, computing power would rise exponentially over relatively brief periods of time.

Moore's observation, now known as Moore's Law, described a trend that has continued and is still remarkably accurate. It is the basis for many planners' performance forecasts. In 26 years the number of transistors on a chip has increased more than 3,200 times, from 2,300 on the 4004 in 1971 to 7.5 million on the PentiumŪ II processor.

Machrone's Law
"Gordon Moore just plain got it right . . . I should also mention that Moore's Law has also given rise to Machrone's Law, which was true for many years, which is that the machine you want always costs $5,000."

-Bill Machrone

Rock's Law
"A very small addendum to Moore's Law is Rock's Law which says that the cost of capital equipment to build semiconductors will double every four years."

-Arthur Rock

To try and get some idea of the degree of complexity and the manufacturing challenges associated with a modern-day integrated circuit, we can think of it like this: if the circuit were magnified such that the individual transistors were of the size of office buildings, and the interconnections between them were of the size of the streets and avenues, then the entire circuit at this scale would stretch from London to San Francisco.

We can see that the scale of integration achieved in microcircuits has risen in a meteoric way, and integrated circuits may now contain millions of transistors on a chip of silicon the size of a fingertip, and cost but a few pence. It has been estimated that in the brief history of microelectronics, in excess of 1016 transistors have been manufactured world-wide.

It is difficult to think of any other endeavour in the history of man that has been brought to such a state of refinement.

One commentator has put it like this:


But what is the irresistible attraction of making devices progressively smaller? Apart from the obvious benefits, of offering more devices and hence greater functionality within a single package, there are a number of other important advantages that accrue from scaling integrated circuits to smaller dimensions. For example, if transistor dimensions are reduced by a factor k, the area occupied by each device is evidently reduced by k2. Analysis shows that the time taken for a signal to pass through the transistor falls, also by a factor k, and the power consumed by it is also reduced by k2. So smaller devices are faster, require less power, and cost less. These are the powerful incentives which drive chip manufacturers inexorably towards smaller and smaller devices.

To take a well-known example, the Intel Pentium processor in the PC (widely used in the office and the home) was originally manufactured using transistors with minimum dimensions of 0.8 micrometres. Its clock speed was limited to 66 MHz. By reducing the minimum dimension to 0.6 micrometres, the clock speed can be raised to 100 MHz, allowing the processor to carry out 50% more instructions per second. The latest Pentium Pro has minimum dimensions of 0.35 micrometres, and can run at 200 MHz.

Scaling the Intel Pentium processor

Minimum dimension


0.8 0.6
Area of chip


284 163
Maximum clock speed


66 100
Supply voltage


5 3.3

Unfortunately the enhanced performance brought about by scaling devices comes at the expense of enormous technical investment. The manufacture of integrated circuits involves hundreds of separate procedures, all of which must be carried out perfectly correctly to produce working devices. In addition, it calls for microscopic precision, measured in fractions of micrometres. The process, by which the patterns describing the shapes and sizes of the circuit elements are transferred to the surface of the wafer (lithography) is a key factor. Up to now, this has been often been accomplished by photographic reduction of patterns created with the help of a computer-aided design tool. But as the size of the features imaged becomes comparable to the wavelength of light, fidelity suffers, and the proportion of working devices declines. Maintaining the necessary level of precision also calls for chip production environments that are thousands of times cleaner than today's cleanest surgical operating theatres.

One of the reasons for the divergence in more recent years from Moore's Law is the increasing difficulty and escalating cost of servicing these demands.

This is not the only reason for the recent 'failure' of Moore's Law. In addition, there are real problems associated with the sheer complexity of designing and testing such very large circuits (embodying millions or tens of millions of transistors).