Inside every new smartphone, tablet or other digital gizmo are microchips with more circuits — and more processing power — than manufacturers could make a year or two before.
And behind each advance in microchips are innovations, such as one emerging next week from a Twin Cities firm, that consumers never think about or see.
At an annual conference of chip equipment makers, Golden Valley-based CyberOptics Corp. will unveil a sensor product that lets chipmakers measure the vibration, leveling and humidity inside the machines turning plain silicon wafers into chips. It's an advance from a previous product that combined two measurements.
For chipmakers, that means slightly less time in a production run needs to be spent taking measurements, and more time can be devoted to making chips. It's a jump in efficiency that is one of the reasons that digital gadgets keep getting better and cheaper.
For CyberOptics, it's an addition to a lineup of semiconductor sensors that is the fastest-growing product segment in the company, which has about $45 million in annual sales. "What we are good at is taking different types of sensors and putting them together," said Subodh Kulkarni, the company's chief executive.
CyberOptics was started in the 1980s by a University of Minnesota electrical engineering professor named Steven Case, who recognized the role that laser-based sensors could play in lining up circuit boards. Its products were originally used by makers of computers and other electronics items for the assembly of circuits onto boards. It still makes those kinds of sensors, which have advanced to where they measure in 3-D and at eye-blinking speeds.
The company moved into the chip manufacturing industry in 2004 when it first combined a miniature sensor with a Bluetooth wireless transmitter and placed it on a substrate the size of a silicon wafer. That sensor device could then be run through a chipmaking machine to measure its accuracy and performance, sending data wirelessly in real time.
Since chipmakers need to check several attributes, such as whether wafers are being kept level or whether there is dust or other particles in the machine, they needed to run separate sensors through, consuming time that would otherwise be used for actual production.
The company's new product adds humidity sensors into the multi-sensor package. Keeping track of humidity inside the machines that make chips has become more important as the distance between circuits has shrunk, the innovation that allows more circuits to be put on a chip.
Ever smaller chips
Just this week, IBM announced a breakthrough in making computer chips even smaller, creating a test version of the world's first semiconductor that shrinks the circuitry to a separation of 7 nanometers. By contrast, today's fastest computers and servers use microprocessors with circuits of 14- and 22-nanometers. The width of a human hair is about 10,000 times bigger. A strand of human DNA is 2.5 nanometers.
At such tiny widths, moisture inside the machine that is making a chip can create oxidation that renders the silicon wafer useless. While the IBM innovation is several years from becoming a commercial process, each step toward smaller circuits means that the machines and processes to make them need to be better.
"This is all good for us because, when transistors were hundreds of nanometers, you didn't need to measure things that precisely," Kulkarni said. "But as the chips get more sophisticated, the manufacturers can no longer afford to use the existing crude tools to do measurements and sensing."
CyberOptics sold about $8 million worth of advanced sensors for chipmaking last year. It doesn't break out profitability of such products but, in a filing to securities regulators, it said that its newest products, including semiconductor sensors, "have more favorable margins compared to products we have sold in the past."