Carnegie Mellon University
Shawn Blanton

Microchip Detective

Professor Shawn Blanton discovered how to diagnose problems inside the tiny integrated circuits that power our world.

Shawn Blanton’s mission is fixing hard-to-find failures in the microchips that run nearly every electronic appliance we use, and his designs are manufactured and used by some of the world’s largest semiconductor companies.

“We are the only academics in the world who are doing this type of work and having it fabricated by industrial partners,” says Blanton, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “In the less-than-five years since we began, it’s gotten a lot of traction.” Blanton and his three Ph.D. students from the Advanced Chip Testing Laboratory create special microchips that uncover why integrated circuits fail.

And using Blanton’s test chips is smart business. Because as many as five in 10 microchips that are fabricated may not work, manufacturers realize tremendous cost savings by using these test chips.

He explains that the chips that run our mobile phones, automobiles, laptops, refrigerators and countless other appliances pack a lot of functionality into a miniscule space. They go through years of design and testing before they are manufactured, and then they are constantly fine-tuned to do more and more. Those modifications create opportunities for the chip to fail.

Blanton’s test chips, specifically designed to be transparent to failure, fit inside the microchip being tested, and if it fails, the test chip gathers data on what the malfunction is, where it is located, and why it happened. The companies use the data to correct the failure.

Because of strong partnerships with CMU, these giants of semiconductor manufacturing share the failure data with Blanton and his students. Their research using this real-world data gives them insight into the latest technologies and issues caused by new materials and devices.

“The flexibility at CMU starts innovation here like an engine,” Blanton says. “There are no inherent roadblocks to what we can accomplish.”