OUR SHRINKING WORLD

March 16, 2019


We sometimes do not realize how miniaturization has affected our every-day lives.  Electromechanical products have become smaller and smaller with one great example being the cell phone we carry and use every day.  Before we look at several examples, let’s get a definition of miniaturization.

Miniaturization is the trend to manufacture ever smaller mechanical, optical and electronic products and devices. Examples include miniaturization of mobile phones, computers and vehicle engine downsizing. In electronics, Moore’s Law predicted that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit for minimum component cost doubles every eighteen (18) months. This enables processors to be built in smaller sizes. We can tell that miniaturization refers to the evolution of primarily electronic devices as they become smaller, faster and more efficient. Miniaturization also includes mechanical components although it sometimes is very difficult to reduce the size of a functioning part.

The revolution of electronic miniaturization began during World War II and is continuing to change the world till now. Miniaturization of computer technology has been the source of a seemingly endless battle between technology giants over the world. The market has become so competitive that the companies developing microprocessors are constantly working towards erecting a smaller microchip than that of their competitor, and as a result, computers become obsolete almost as soon as they are commercialized.  The concept that underlies technological miniaturization is “the smaller the better”; smaller is faster, smaller is cheaper, smaller is more profitable. It is not just companies that profit from miniaturization advances, but entire nations reap rewards through the capitalization of new developments. Devices such as personal computers, cellular telephones, portable radios, and camcorders have created massive markets through miniaturization, and brought billions of dollars to the countries where they were designed and built. In the 21st century, almost every electronic device has a computer chip inside. The goal of miniaturization is to make these devices smaller and more powerful, and thus made available everywhere. It has been said, however, that the time for continued miniaturization is limited – the smaller the computer chip gets, the more difficult it becomes to shrink the components that fit on the chip.  I personally do not think this is the case but I am a mechanical engineer and not an electronic or electrical engineer.  I use the products but I do not develop the products.

The world of miniaturization would not be possible at all if it were not for semiconductor technology.  Devices made of semiconductors, notably silicon, are essential components of most electronic circuits.  A process of lithography is used to create circuitry layered over a silicon substrate. A transistor is a semiconductor device with three connections capable of amplification in addition to rectification. Miniaturization entails increasing the number of transistors that can hold on a single chip, while shrinking the size of the chip. As the surface area of a chip decreases, the task of designing newer and faster circuit designs becomes more difficult, as there is less room left for the components that make the computer run faster and store more data.

There is no better example of miniaturization than cell phone development.  The digital picture you see below will give some indication as to the development of the cell phone and how the physical size has decreased over the years.  The cell phone to the far left is where it all started.  To the right, where we are today.  If you look at the modern-day cell phone you see a remarkable difference in size AND ability to communicate.  This is all possible due to shrinking computer chips.

One of the most striking changes due to miniaturization is the application of digital equipment into a modern-day aircraft cockpit.  The JPEG below is a mockup of an actual Convair 880.  With analog gauges, an engineering panel and an exterior shell, this cockpit reads 1960/1970 style design and fabrication.  In fact, this is the actual cockpit mock up that was used in the classic comedy film “Airplane”.

Now, let us take a look at a digital cockpit.  Notice any differences?  Cleaner and fewer.  The GUI or graphical user interface can take the place of numerous dials and gauges that clutter and possibly confuse a pilot’s vision.

I think you have the picture so I would challenge you to take a look this upcoming week to discover those electromechanical items, we take for granted, to discover how they have been reduced in size.  You just may be surprised.

 

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