This article focuses on the challenges of a semiconductor fab customer support engineer.
Chip manufacture in a semiconductor fab
The chips in your electronics devices go through a complex manufacturing process, which are split in to three main stages.
Wafer fabrication – the growing of an ingot that is then sliced to produce individual blank wafers, is done in a Wafer Fab. The wafers are delivered to the Device fabrication plant where they are processed to produce a silicon wafer with hundreds or thousands of individual ICs on a wafer. The completed wafer is shipped to be, diced, packaged/assembled ready to go into a device.
At each of these stages there are highly complex pieces of equipment that need to run smoothly to produce the precise device requirements.
There are thousands of extremely complex machines in both Wafer Fabs and Chip Fabs (device fabrication plants) all over the world. These global ‘foundries’ are not all the same, but they all make chips. The things they do have in common is that once there is a problem and a machine is ‘down’ it will cost thousands of Euros/Dollars per minute. The fix/solution is therefore always urgent. When the local team cannot solve it, the Customer Support Team send out an engineer or group of engineers to the customer.
As well as repairing and correcting machine errors, the engineer will also monitor, maintain and perform upgrades to the system.
The machines are so complex that even tiny process deviation can be critical. An engineer might spend the whole day working out why something is too big by half a nanometer!
What type of people make the best semiconductor fab customer support engineers?
The types of Engineers best suited to this work are those who are inquisitive, like troubleshooting, are self-motivated, and like dealing with a lot of data.
People skills are key. At the start of a site visit the Engineer needs to build a complete story of exactly what has happened from the customer. In some cases, it is almost like conducting an interview. Of course, part of the job is to work out and ensure that the same issue won’t happen again in the future.
The three main challenges of working in a semiconductor fab
There are three main challenges:
- Knowledge – variety and learning constantly
- Discomfort – travel, away from home, protective clothing, standing for long periods of time
Engineers need to have a wide variety of skills and knowledge including:
• Mechanical engineering
• Electronic/Electrical engineering
• Vacuum technology
• Fluid dynamics
• VR (Virtual Reality) which is key in this global industry as not everyone speaks the same language.
The semiconductor industry never stands still and so all knowledge needs to be updated on a very regular basis. There will often be a very steep learning curve.
The technology is cutting edge and so there are fewer sources of help when troubleshooting.
Time really is money in the semiconductor industry and the longer a problem takes to resolve, the louder the clock ticks.
We shed particles from our skin and clothing, and so air showers and protective clothing are necessary before starting work. This all takes time as the Engineer may wear a hood, googles, face mask, boots, footwear coverings as well as a coverall. Breaks are never fast as employees have to take everything off and then put it back on again. Experienced Engineers suggest investing in good supportive footwear as you will be on your feet for a lot of the time.
There are many positives to this job. In particular, this is a fast paced environment. However, it is also very collaborative, so that there is a strong team spirit and constant opportunity to learn and develop.