Alumni ProfileShawn Blanton '87
Chip doctor

Blanton head shotWhen he talks to school groups, Shawn Blanton ’87 tells kids he’s a doctor for silicon chips, those tiny microprocessors inside everything from cell phones and computers to Wii controllers and microwave ovens. The tinier those chips get, the more they need a doctor, before they get closed up inside an electronic device.

Blanton is a professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University and the director of its Center for Silicon Systems Implementation. He explained: “What drives this industry is its ability to make smaller and smaller chips. Intel can mass-produce one that has features 45 nanometers—that’s 45 billionths of a meter—in size. That means more and more functions on the same device. So, for example, I can watch an episode of Star Trek on my iPhone. [ Visit Intel's Web site. ]

“Ideally all chips of a certain function will be exactly alike. But as they get smaller, variability—both within a single chip and across all chips of that function—increases dramatically. A higher percentage of them—up to 50 percent in a really modern technology—don’t work. Then you have to throw them away. Our center is all about continuing the progress toward smaller electronics by finding ways to ensure their consistency.”

The Center for Silicon Systems Implementation takes on that problem from a number of angles. Blanton specializes in devising tests customized to a particular kind of chip so that failures can be traced back to a specific stage of its design or fabrication. His customized tests also help chip producers cut down the amount of costly testing they have to do. This approach to chip testing is new, unique to the center Blanton directs.

Blanton“Traditionally the industry has only wanted to know, ‘Does this chip work?’” Blanton said. “Some tests generate literally a billion pieces of data for a single chip, and the industry would do nothing with it. We’re asking, ‘What information can we extract from all this data to either fix the design/fabrication process or make our tests better?’”

He returns to his doctor analogy: “Instead of testing a living person for every possible disease, a doctor creates tests for the ailments known to be common for that population. By analyzing data on the chips that have ‘died,’ so to speak, we can customize tests to match diseases, or faults, new chips are likely to get.”

Refined testing not only saves manufacturers, and thus consumers, money. For some kinds of chips, like those in a car’s air bags, better testing can save lives. Blanton in fact holds several patents for tests run on the chips in air bags. For this work he was recently named a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), an honor bestowed on a limited number of IEEE members who have made contributions “for the benefit of humanity and the profession.”

Blanton, nonetheless, said, “I understand that what I do is a small cog in a nearly $300 billion industry. I want to be known more for modeling a way of doing things: the right way, the ethical way. Then, when graduate students and colleagues ask me why, I can give them the gospel.”

Blanton is also known for “outstanding leadership in recruiting and mentoring minorities for advanced degrees in science and technology,” for which he received an Emerald Award in 2006. He said, “I just want to tell other Shawn Blantons out there what an academic career is really about.”