After its decades-long run defining innovation in computing, Moore’s Law may be moving toward its end in 2021. According to the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors (ITRS), recently released by the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA), that’s the year that it will no longer be feasible to continue shrinking transistors for use in microprocessors.

For the unfamiliar, Moore’s Law states that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit will double every year. The law itself was named after Intel co-founder Gordon Moore who first predicted it in 1965 and later revised in 1975.

In order to fit more and more transistors on a silicon chip, the transistors themselves must shrink. But, what the ITRS states is that, after 2021, the transistor will stop shrinking and “we will have exhausted all the various tricks that people have been using to create finer and finer geometries on silicon wafers,” said Eric Hanselman, chief analyst at 451 Research.

“What the ITR report is identifying is that there are just no more rabbits that can be pulled out of various silicon hats in order to make this happen,” Hanselman said.

However, this doesn’t mean that manufacturers will give up on innovating in the transistor space. According to the report, chip makers will begin to experiment with new transistor designs, vertical geometries, and 3D structures.

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In terms of the move toward 3D structures, Hanselman said the same thing happened with memory devices in the 1980s. Manufacturers ran out of geometries and processing space on a wafer, so they started to build 3D structures. Now, we are going through the same transition with transistor structures.

It takes a combination of layering and other processes to achieve these new structures, and some of the highest density structures today already do this. We’re seeing 3D structures get more popular in semiconductor memory, especially in flash memory like Intel and Micron’s 3D Xpoint product. They are built at larger geometries than microprocessors, but the process can be refined down, Hanselman said.

However, working with 3D structures and vertical geometries brings its own set of problems. It requires that you process those silicon wafers more times, Hanselman said, which adds additional production steps and shifts the economies involved with producing it.

“The whole point in any semiconductor process is to make sure that you minimize the number of steps that you have to subject a particular silicon wafer to,” Hanselman said. “Each time you run through another processing step, you introduce the potential for alignment errors in the lithography–what you’re printing is slightly offset so it doesn’t line up properly–and there are chemical processing problems.”

To sum up, the shift to these methods could mean that it will cost more to produce an individual die out of the wafer.

The news that transistors will essentially stop shrinking after 2021 is a big deal. Being that Moore’s Law only accounts for the number of transistors in a circuit, it could very well be meeting its demise as the de facto measure of growth in the computing industry. This lead many to ask where the industry will go after Moore’s Law.

Hanselman said he believes there’s a bigger question to ask: “What are we doing with this kind of computing power?”

Fitting more transistors on a wafer is a useful measure, he said, but we need to better understand how we are designing the systems that are leveraging those transistors. After 2021, we may no longer be able to increase the number of transistors on a particular die, but the cost will continue to drop, which may be an even bigger catalyst.

“As we look toward technologies like the Internet of Things and various means of dispersed computing, we now start to make it very inexpensive to put an awful lot of processing horsepower into all sorts of things that, today, are cost prohibitive,” Hanselman said. “And that, I think, is probably the larger revolution that continues, even though we may taper off the advances that Moore’s Law has afforded us for so long.”

You can read the full SIA report here.

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. A new ITRS report from SIA claims that manufacturers will no longer shrink the transistors used in microprocessors after 2021, shifting the industry away from Moore’s Law.
  2. Despite the number of transistors on a wafer not being able to increase, the report said that manufacturers will look to new transistor designs and geometries in order to keep improving performance.
  3. Despite the waning of Moore’s Law, the price of manufacturing chips will continue to drop, opening up its own revolution in IoT and dispersed computing.