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Microelectronics is a field in electronics that utilizes tiny, or micro, components to manufacture electronics. As demand for small and less-expensive devices grows, the field continues to expand. The main areas of focus generally are research, reliability, and manufacture.
Typically, microelectronics begins with an integrated microelectronics circuit which is a set of electrical components connected together. The most common components are transistors, resistors, capacitors, and diodes. Transistors turn the electricity on and off, similar to a switch. Resistors control the amount of electricity that flows through the current such as the volume control on a television. Capacitors concentrate the electricity for use all at once, and diodes direct when electricity will be used.
Many large universities in the United States conduct research in microelectronics. Most studies involve both how to make components smaller – like transistors and capacitors – and also what the possibilities are for the smaller components. Georgia Tech specializes in medical components such as surgical tools and imaging. Iowa State specializes in industrial uses for microelectronics, such as cell phones and personal digital assistants (PDAs).
The reliability of microelectronics is another area of concentrated effort. Since computers are involved in most businesses, the reliability of the equipment usually is a top priority. This is especially important in the medical field where tiny robotic tools are now taking the place of the doctor's hands in surgery. Using a robot hand and following a video screen, the doctor is able to perform operations through a small laparoscopic incision instead of opening up the patient's entire cavity.
Another area that requires a high degree of reliability is in the financial industry. With more and more data needed, it previously was not feasible to keep up with the amount of required disk space. With the improvements in electronics, however, what at one time filled entire rooms with mainframe computers can now be stored on a few small hand-held devices.
A final area of emphasis is designing for manufacture. In terms of microelectronics, much work has been done to ensure that the various components can indeed be placed on printed circuit boards. The tiny size of components being used to manufacture microelectronics typically is too small for humans to efficiently solder onto printed circuit boards.
Machines called surface mount technology (SMT) machines use robotics to place each component. Thousands of components can be placed per hour utilizing these machines. A program is loaded into the machine which has a specific spot on each printed circuit board where the components should be placed. The program controls where the robotic arms place each part. This automation typically makes the entire manufacturing process more efficient which also reduces the overall cost.