In an interesting study we did a couple of years ago at SEMI, we looked at parallels between the aircraft industry and the semiconductor industry. Granted, they seem very much different, but in some ways, in taking advantage laws of physics and exponential growth, they are similar. In particular, we looked at the speed of production aircraft over the past 100 years, starting with the Wright Flyer III. We started with this plane as it was actually the first plane capable of sustainable flight (over 24 miles).
Advancements in aircraft speed pretty much stopped with the SR-71 Blackbird spy plane, which is still listed as the fastest production plane. In 1976, it hit 2188 mph. As a specialized plane, it was very expensive to purchase and to fly.
In plotting the 38 fastest planes over the years on a log-linear plot, you see a nice exponential pattern develop. Basically, at least after aircraft manufacturing became a “real” industry in 1910 or so, aircraft speed basically doubled every ten years. And it did this for over six decades. Eventually, physics and economics caught up with things, and for production aircraft, the exponential ride stopped.
Looking at airplane costs, for what data is available, it is also exponential. Extrapolating the speed and cost out to 2009, if we were to stay on the exponential, we’d have production planes flying at 20,000 mph and costing nearly $20B US.
At some point, Moore’s law will eventually run out on us — at least from the scaling point of view. Eventually, the economic law will run its course as well. The lesser gains found in doubling wafer size may already be past us unless we can do it differently this time. However, learning from the aircraft industry, there is still money that will be made. Innovation in design, 3D structures and die stacks, software, and architecture are just some of the areas that will provide a path forward. Boutique applications and business models will evolve to meet ever-growing needs, just as small commercial aircraft companies and AirBus have sprung up to continue the evolution in aircraft, and Southwest Airlines created a new model in delivery. The key is recognizing when the gains are more expensive than the rewards and shifting funds and resources into the new areas of opportunity.