Semiconductors are paramount in our daily life. From sensor chips that provide the interface for real-world analog signals to digital ICs that perform millions of instructions per second, it offers a range of functions that, with proper design, can create a path for current to flow and make system solutions. A significantly large number of applications are essential in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. These applications are made possible by the tiny transistors the make up the IC from respiratory ventilators, molecular point of care systems for virus detection, communication networks, and video conferencing systems to distribution supply chains, critical infrastructure, and mobile phone
While the 2019 novel coronavirus is approximately 120nm in diameter, the semiconductor industry is pushing transistor sizes to 7nm. Intel noted that more than 6 million tri-gate 22nm transistors could fit in the period at the end of this sentence.
With significant problems weighing down on humanity, the world is looking up to problem solvers to remind us that we are capable of designing solutions to bring us through these challenging times. While the semiconductor industry has weathered ups and downs in the past, this pandemic brings about unprecedented disruptions as businesses focus on responding to critical needs and develop plans for the future to:
- Keep workers safe
- Minimize the spread
- Keep essential services going
- Develop contingency plans
- Understand risks in the supply chain
- Use data to make real-time decisions
- Collaborate with old and new partners for more robust systems
- Focus on investments and move fast when opportunities open up
While engineers generally approach technical problems with a logical, systematic, and pragmatic approach, analog engineers—often compared to artists, chefs, or musicians—excel at optimizing complex solutions with many dynamic variables.
So what can analog engineers teach us about approaching the challenges amid the COVID-19 pandemic?
- Protect and isolate yourself from surges that cause damage or injury.
- Have a feedback loop to monitor and control for stability.
- Know how to amplify, filter, condition, or shift signals as you work to understand the characteristics and limits of the situation. There is not always a right or wrong (1 or 0), so analyze the signals, model the situation, and be prepared to modify earlier decisions.
- Have a roadmap: While a schematic provides a path, make sure your layout or execution plan factors in the margin and minimizes interference. Consider when actions are needed in series or parallel.
- Design robust circuits to reduce risk.
- Prepare for noise, process variation, and other parasitic effects and have contingency plans or techniques to address them in your design. The details make the difference.
- Be resilient. Some things you will need to try, fail, improve, and try again.
- Respect your digital counterparts and their ability to collect and process massive amounts of data in fractions of a second and analyze the information for decision making.
- Use data and statistics to see where your operating plan may be pushing limits that require adjustments or further troubleshooting.
Perhaps the essential characteristic analog engineers model for us is their desire to design and build solutions to real-world problems. They create a conducive path for the flow of ideas and solutions, balancing the relationship between the source of energy and the load on the system.
The power source in our current coronavirus situation is our people—the energy, experience, innovation, and work ethic of our scientists, medical professionals, first responders, suppliers, distributors, technicians, problem solvers, and educators. Even with the heavy load from the coronavirus outbreak, we can design a path forward that connects us and improves the situation.
Finally, when it comes to things you cannot see, just like RF signals and viruses, trust the engineers and scientists capable of controlling such challenges. Stay safe and power on.