You’ve probably tried to explain to somebody the unbelievable scale of what it takes to design a modern chip with hundreds of millions or billions of transistors. But even we have difficulty with numbers when they get that large, like when we hear that there are 500 billion galaxies in the universe. Large numbers just don’t have that much impact. What’s another trillion dollars on the national debt? One way to make that one clearer is that it is roughly the amount taken in annually in income tax. So $1T of debt means one year of everyone in the country paying double their tax.
I was talking to an architect yesterday evening who was familiar with AutoCAD ($3K/seat!) for 3D design and she was asking how similar that was to IC design.
The usual analogy I use for designing an integrated circuit is that it is like designing the Boeing 787 except doing it in 12 months using a manufacturing technology that has never been used before, on a design system that has never been used in production for that manufacturing technology. And by designing a 787 I mean all the parts, every part of every jet engine, every part of every seat, pump and instrument.
Of course some subassemblies might have been used before, such as the seats or the fuel-gauge (hey, IP-based design). But most things, such as the landing-gear, will need at least some change. Actually in terms of the count of parts this is underestimating things but it’s not quite fair to compare a complex turbine blade with a single transistor and count both as one part.
But here’s the thing I thought of last night that I’ve never articulated before. Having designed the 787 on the computer, you press a button and an amazing automated assembly plant take a couple of months to manufacture one. And then you put it on the end of the runway, put the throttles up to full and expect it to take off first time, using engines that have never run before and flight surfaces that have never flown before. Which it had better do, since it is already scheduled to come into service in November ready for the holiday market.
Then, unlike Boeing, the plane will be obsolete in 6 or 12 months. Next Christmas the 797 will be required, even bigger and more complex. But it will need to fly first time too.