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Definition: process technology


The particular manufacturing method used to make silicon chips, which is measured by the size of the transistor's elements. The driving force behind the design of integrated circuits is miniaturization, and process technology boils down to the never-ending goal of "make it smaller." As transistors get smaller, they switch faster and use less energy. Smaller also means more computing power per square inch that can be placed into ever tighter quarters. See digital perfection.

Feature Size Measured in Nanometers
The size of the features (the elements that make up the transistors) are measured in nanometers. A 22 nm process technology refers to features 22 nm or 0.022 µm in size. Also called a "technology node" and "process node," early chips were measured in micrometers (see table below).

Historically, the feature size referred to the length of the silicon channel between source and drain in field effect transistors (see FET). Today, the feature size is typically the smallest element in the transistor.

New Chips Are Not Always Smaller
The smallest feature sizes are found on the latest, high-end CPU and SoC chips that retail for several hundred dollars apiece. However, 8-bit and 16-bit microcontrollers (MCUs) are used by the billions every year and sell for as little as 50 cents in quantity. They require far fewer transistors that do not need to be as dense. A $2 microcontroller has feature sizes similar to the high-end chips a decade or two earlier. See microcontroller, CPU and SoC.

How Small Is Small?
To understand how tiny these transistor elements are, using state-of-the-art 5 nm feature sizes as an example, 16 thousand of them laid side-by-side are equal to the cross section of one human hair. See half-node and active area.

 SEMICONDUCTOR FEATURE SIZES

      Nanometers  Micrometers
 Year    (nm)        (µm)

 1957  120,000      120.0
 1963   30,000       30.0
 1971   10,000       10.0
 1974    6,000        6.0
 1976    3,000        3.0
 1982    1,500        1.5  **
 1985    1,300        1.3  **
 1989    1,000        1.0  **
 1993      600        0.6  **
 1996      350        0.35 **
 1998      250        0.25 **
 1999      180        0.18 **
 2001      130        0.13 **
 2003       90        0.09 **
 2005       65        0.065
 2008       45        0.045
 2010       32        0.032 ***
 2012       22        0.022 ***
 2014       14        0.014
 2017       10        0.010
 2018        7        0.007
 2020        5        0.005
 2022        3        0.003
 2024        2        0.002 ****

   ** Range of feature sizes
       for microcontrollers

  *** Range of feature sizes
       for ASIC chips

 **** In 2021, IBM announced 2 nm nodes
       for 2024-2025 production
       (2 nm is 4 atoms!)




Half a Micrometer in Five Years
In the 1990s, the feature size of these AMD chips was reduced from .8 to .35 micrometers. Half a micrometer may seem insignificant, but not in the semiconductor world. That difference is 450 nanometers. (Images courtesy of Advanced Micro Devices, Inc.)