In 2014, semiconductor production facilities made some 250 billion billion (250 x 1018) transistors. This was, literally, production on an astronomical scale. Every second of that year, on average, 8 trillion transistors were produced. That figure is about 25 times the number of stars in the Milky Way and some 75 times the number of galaxies in the known universe.
The rate of growth has also been extraordinary. More transistors were made in 2014 than in all the years prior to 2011. Even the recent great recession had little effect. Transistor production in 2009—a year of deep recession for the semiconductor industry—was more than the cumulative total prior to 2007.
The collective pursuit of Moore’s Law has driven this growth. For decades, manufacturing innovation and simple miniaturization have enabled engineers to pack more capability into the same area of silicon. The result has been a steady decrease in manufacturing cost per transistor (transistor price, which is easier to track, is plotted above).
This steady, predictable decline in prices was a self-reinforcing gift. Because electronics manufacturers could depend on Moore’s Law, they could plan further ahead and invest more in the development of new and better-performing products. In ways profound and surprising, this situation promoted economic growth. It has been the ever-rising tide that has not only lifted all boats but also enabled us to make fantastic and entirely new kinds of boats.
This article originally appeared in print as “Transistors, by the Numbers.”
About the Author
Dan Hutcheson is the CEO of the firm VLSI Research, which performs market research and economic analysis of the semiconductor industry.