Tiny Machines That Produce Massive Returns

By Ray Blanco May 15, 2014, 2:06 PM 

I want to build a billion tiny factories, models of each other, which are manufacturing simultaneously… The principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom. It is not an attempt to violate any laws; it is something, in principle, that can be done; but in practice, it has not been done, because we are too big.

— Richard Feynman, Plenty of Room at the Bottom

Most of the 19th and the first half of the 20th century were all about building things bigger. Bigger buildings, bigger ships and bigger planes.

They required big power sources, from engines to electrical power plants.

In just about everything, from the launch of a new transoceanic steam-powered cruiser… to a skyscraper towering over a city…

Bigger meant better.

But not anymore.

Now, computing power that would have required an entire room to house it can fit in your pocket.

From about the second half of the 20th century until now, smallness became more important.

Most of the greatest engineering advances since that time appear to be happening in the realm of the very small.

One really good example is electronics. In the middle of the past century, bulky vacuum tubes were the state of the art. Big glowing tubes filled radios, TV sets and computers the size of office buildings.

Then we discovered how to use semiconductors to build transistors. These replaced the big bulbs. And a new level of miniaturization became possible.

Radios that were formerly to be considered pieces of living room furniture could now be shrunk to a size that fit into your pocket.

By the late ’50s, engineers and inventors had figured out how to integrate many transistors onto a single circuit board. New manufacturing techniques meant that many tiny components could be fit on a single silicon chip.

By the 1960s, the improvement in the miniaturization of semiconductors had become so obvious that Intel co-founder Gordon Moore was able to map the trend and extrapolate based upon it.

This so-called “Moore’s law” has since proven prophetic. Almost like a clock, improving miniaturization means we can pack twice as many components on a given area every couple of years.

This growth has been exponential!

In the early ’80s, for example, a typical computer microprocessor had a transistor count in the tens of thousands.

Today, microprocessors found in popular consumer products have transistor counts in the billions.

Furthermore, as transistor density goes up, the cost per transistor drops.

With each iteration, performance improves and uses less electricity.

Tiny and cheap to make, these microcircuits have changed everything.

Now, computing power that would have required an entire room to house it can fit in your pocket.

There is a new revolution brewing that brings the advantages of smallness to a new field: microelectricalmechanical systems (MEMS).

Many of the same discoveries that made the semiconductor revolution possible are now also enabling MEMS.

Such tiny machines were a dream of physicist Richard Feynman, and the subject of a famous 1959 presentation to the American Physical Society, considered by many to be the conceptual beginnings of nanotechnology.

But today we’re at an inflection point with tiny machines. They’re already inside of products we use, from video game controllers to cellphones and more.

(click to enlarge)

Many video game controllers also use MEMS sensors — gyroscopes and accelerometers — to sense a player’s movements as part of a game’s interface. And your smartphone screen’s ability to reorient based on how it is held, for example, is thanks to MEMS technology.

There’s a reason for this: MEMS technology turns out to be a great way to build tiny sensors. These miniscule machines have become a useful way to sense the environment, including position, attitude and motion.

Since MEMS technology brings compact, inexpensive and low-energy sensing capabilities, it will benefit from demand in multiple fields. Then there’s the mother of all networks…

A new world of smart, cloud-connected devices, the “Internet of Things,” will require superior MEMS-based sensing technology.

Automation of all kinds — drones and robots — also needs to be able to sense these things in order to interact with the outside world and perform programmed tasks.

Along with smarter cellphones, these are fast-growing industries.

MEMS is one of the fastest-growing segments of the semiconductor industry.

Already a multibillion-dollar industry, double-digit growth is expected to continue from about $12 billion last year to over $22 billion by 2018.

Now is the time to invest in MEMS, before we hit the inflection point.

Keep your eyes on this space!

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