Technology has changed dramatically in the last couple of decades.
Instead of landlines or briefcase-sized mobile phones, most people carry near-supercomputers in their pockets. Rather than looking at a wall of buttons and switches, along with the world’s largest instruction manual, modern astronauts watch their ship pilot itself on a series of touch screens.
The world revolves around technology and what the human race can accomplish with it. Everything mentioned so far relies on one commonality — semiconductors. Here’s how these devices are changing the world.
It’s vital to understand exactly what semiconductors are. When it comes to transmitting electricity, materials get broken down into three categories — conductors, insulators and semiconductors. The copper wire in a home’s wall or a set of headphones is considered a conductor because it transmits electricity easily. Insulators, like rubber or ceramic, prevent the transmission of electricity.
Semiconductors fall in the middle. Under some circumstances, they act as insulators. Under others, they become conductors. For many, heat is the deciding factor, with semiconductors becoming more conductive as their temperature rises. In specific applications, engineers may also use superconductors that increase their conductivity as temperatures fall.
Semiconductors may be a fairly new discovery, but this technology dates back to the invention of the rectifier — a device that converted AC and DC power into one another — back in 1874.
It wasn’t until 1947, when Bell Laboratories patented the contact point transistor, that electrical engineers started to recognize the potential applications for this technology. The people involved in this invention eventually won the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work.
In the 1950s, consumers could find semiconductors in things like transistor radios. Slowly, toward the end of the decade, they transitioned to integrated circuits.
These became popular for calculators such as those made by Texas Instruments. This advancement also sparked a brutal calculator war that lasted for most of the 1970s, as companies like Texas Instruments, Casio, Sharp, Hewlett-Packard and others fought to become the top dog in the world of pocket computing.
In the 1980s, engineers developed the large-scale integrated circuit (LSI), followed by the very large-scale integrated (VLSI) and ultra-large-scale integrated (ULSI) in the 1990s and 2000s. Semiconductors are part of nearly every technology that the average person uses today. Computers, smartphones and modern appliances wouldn’t function without semiconductors — or at least, they wouldn’t be as compact and functional as they are today.
Modern technology exists because of the semiconductor. Before its invention, engineers relied on vacuum tubes. While functional, these tubes consumed enormous amounts of power, generated lots of heat and tended to fail frequently. Vacuum tube computers were nothing like the compact technology the average consumer uses today.
Now, everyone and everything is connected thanks to some integrated circuits and a bit of battery power. People walk around with tools that grant them access to the breadth of human knowledge in their pockets, but for the majority of them, it’s just a normal Tuesday.
Circuit technology is swiftly reaching a point where it will no longer be able to advance. Designers can no longer fit any more transistors onto a small-enough space. Some experts wonder if designers may have hit the physical barrier preventing further advancements, but if the human race is anything, it’s adaptable.
Modern engineers won’t let that stop them. Many have already started researching potential nanotechnology applications, utilizing carbon nanotubes to build processors and circuits that are smaller and more advanced than ever. Using nanotechnology could potentially shrink technology even further, leading humanity into the science-fiction future of implantable smartphones and mind-machine interfaces that it’s been dreaming of for decades.
Set an image of the world before semiconductors next to one of the modern world and the two couldn’t be more different. Semiconductor technology has changed lives and will continue to do so in the future.
Like semiconductors, automation has found success and achieved widespread appeal in a variety of industries. Semiconductor manufacturing and testing is no different. From simple electronics to the most advanced industrial control systems, testing individual components for performance and longevity is essential for getting the most out of semiconductors.
As useful and ubiquitous as semiconductors are now, additional technologies help manufacturers fully leverage and even further improve these parts and the products to which they contribute. As the demand for chips rises, so does the demand for reliable testing equipment and methods. The global automated testing equipment (ATE) industry grew from $3.54 billion in 2011 to $4.40 billion in 2020.
ATE helps reduce defect rates across the semiconductor industry and sets manufacturers up for continued success. Just as importantly, automated testing also helps semiconductor designers achieve greater efficiency through lower power consumption.
Between doing more with less and improving companies’ and products’ ecological footprints, automated testing helps build on known semiconductor advantages and should remain an important part of this field in the coming years.
The human race is always looking toward the future by focusing on new technology, space travel and so much more. Semiconductors have been around for decades, but these simple materials have shaped the way humanity looks at and interacts with the world around them. They will likely continue to do so in the next few decades.
Technology has become such an integral part of human existence that it is difficult to imagine what life might be like without it. It’s hard to picture placing a phone call on a vacuum-tube-powered cellphone. And thanks to semiconductors, people don’t have to.
Megan Ray Nichols is a science writer by day & an amateur astronomer by night (at least when the weather cooperates). Megan is the editor of Schooled By Science, a blog dedicated to making science understandable to those without a science degree. She also regularly contributes to Smart Data Collective, Real Clear Science, and Industry Today. Subscribe to Schooled By Science for the latest news.