Machine Safety: Has Moore’s Law helped?

Moore’s Law states that the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles every two years. While many consider this a joke, it’s not far off the mark looking back. Even so, has this rapid advancement in technology played a role in machine safety?


Moore’s Law states that the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles every two years. While many consider this a joke it’s not far off the mark looking back. Even so, has this rapid advancement in technology played a role in machine safety?

In my opinion the answer is yes.

Machine safety technology adoption, according to J.B. Titus, Control Engineering machine safety blog

To peel this onion you really need to look back to what’s now being called the third Industrial Revolution. This period began around 1970 when electronics entered the world of industrial control systems. Until then most machinery was controlled by electromechanical devices called relays. Now, along comes the first wave of electronic control systems made up of hardware, firmware, and software that would perform the mechanical on/off function of relays automatically. Adoption of these new systems in industry took off like a rocket, even though initially they were very unreliable. Driven by this lack of reliability, safety standards quickly banned these new control systems called PLCs (programmable logic controllers) from any role in machine safety. Therefore, machine safety could only be provided via field devices hard wired to conventional relays (and ultimately safety relays). Machine safety did not enjoy the benefits of Moore’s Law for the next 40 years.

On the other hand, general machine control via PLCs continued its rocket trajectory rapidly gaining reliability, I would argue, largely because of Moore’s Law. As an analogy let’s look at computers. In 1976 the state-of-the-art Cray-1 supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (remember the atom bomb) could process 160 million flops (floating-point operations per second) with only 8 MB (megabytes) of memory. Today, according to “Cray,” the Cray XT5 can now perform 1 quadrillion petaflops (10 to the 15th power). This is an incredible advancement in only 35 years. How could Moore’s Law not have been vital to this achievement?

Similarly, by virtue of the advancement in electronic controls technology, their related now stellar reliability, and IEC 61508-1:1997 (Functional safety of electrical/electronic/programmable electronic safety-related systems - Parts 1 through 7) newer PLCs called safety PLCs were brought to market in 2002. IEC 61508 was the design standard for automation supplier companies to follow for producing safety controllers performing safety functions. How could Moore’s Law not have been vital to this achievement, as well?

The application of transistors on integrated circuits certainly applies to both computers and PLCs, which establishes a good argument to answer the lead question – YES! 

Has this presented you with any new perspectives? Do you have some specific topic or interest that we could cover in future blog posts? Add your comments or thoughts to the discussion by submitting your ideas, experiences, and challenges in the comments section below.

Related articles:

Moore’s Law from Wikipedia

How Moore's Law Works by Jonathan Strickland

ASSE - Professional Safety Journal- Near-Miss Reporting, May 2013

OSHA – search for near miss 

Contact: for “Solutions for Machine Safety”.

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