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The Last Word

Fostering Engineering Collaboration

By David Lammers

When I set out this spring to interview several Applied Materials engineers for a Nanochip Express article about the company’s annual Engineering Technology (ET) conferences, I didn’t realize I would learn so much about how engineers think—and relate. I’ve been writing about the semiconductor industry for several decades, but most of my interviews have been with marketing people, industry analysts, and executives. With the ET conferences story, my assignment was to talk to engineers who had submitted papers about their work. The papers are delivered at one of several international regional ET events, or at the main US-based ET Conference, held this past year in Las Vegas.

Engineers, I am convinced, have a strong desire to tell their stories, to communicate the value of their work, no matter how technically arcane it might be. In a sense, that is what the ET conferences are all about: breaking down the silos that prevent knowledge from being more widely shared within Applied Materials, and then applying that knowledge to help customers run their tools and fabs more effectively.

A good example of this type of knowledge sharing comes from Kevin Sannes, who works in what is now a key area: matching the performance of multiple tools in a fab. “It is always competitive to get a paper accepted to the ET conferences,” said Sannes, who works in the FabVantage™ Consulting group at Applied Global Services (AGS). After 27 years at Applied, “I know a lot of people out in the field for AGS, but Applied is a large company now and there are so many engineers in Santa Clara and elsewhere that I don’t interact with.”

Listening to Sannes describe the different skills his team brings to bear to improve the performance matching of a fleet of etchers, for example, is nothing short of inspiring. It makes me glad to be part of an industry unfazed by the technical challenges ahead of it.

Dermot Cantwell, Director, Applied Materials Common Systems Software Group

Dermot Cantwell is another long-term Applied engineer who had a paper accepted for the 2016 Las Vegas event. He is part of the Common Systems Software group, which developed an application to aid the company’s process development teams by extracting more information from the data generated by Applied tools. The goal is to look, for example, at trace data about pressure—which by itself might have limited information on how it impacts on-wafer performance—then determine how that data can be further analyzed and leveraged by process- and engineering teams.

Cantwell’s data mining work is at the center of the data-analysis movement sweeping multiple industries. An Irishman, he transmits enthusiasm for the work and delights in making it possible for other engineers to achieve their goals just a bit quicker than before.

“We created a piece of software where we take data already developed and extract a lot more information from it,” Cantwell said.

His comments bring to mind a recent McKinsey & Company study, a well-researched piece that concludes that the semiconductor industry needs to get its act together when it comes to data analytics, machine learning, and artificial intelligence. The study’s authors conclude that the industry needs to overcome its tendencies for companies to go it alone, operating in secrecy, and investing relatively little in data analytics. And with an estimated 10,000 data analysis engineers in all of the United States, they point out that the semiconductor industry faces a worsening shortage of just the kinds of software engineers it needs to improve its manufacturing efficiencies.

Wendell Boyd, Applied Materials Senior AGS Engineering Manager

This is a tremendously important subject. Historians of technology believe that it was the relatively free interchange of knowledge between scientists and engineers in Renaissance-era Western Europe that led to the Industrial Revolution there. The early iron makers in England, for example, learned from the early science of metallurgy well ahead of other regions of the world. But once developed, they fiercely protected their methods, slowing the spread of information and innovation.

Wendell Boyd is a senior AGS engineering manager who seems to intuitively understand these oft-opposing forces: the desire to share the technical advances he has come up with (for electrostatic chucks, or ESCs) while understanding that the intellectual property needs to be protected. His work has been awarded several patents for the development of sensors that measure changes to the dielectric thickness, uniformity, and resistivity of the ESCs.


“I believe our chucking-force sensor is going to change our industry. It can really lower defects,” Boyd said. Being selected to tell his story in front of his peers means as much as the patent awards or customer adoptions. “Attending the ET conferences gives us a chance to share some of our successes, or even failures, so others don’t repeat the same mistakes. It helps us as engineers to grow and excel.”

David Lammers is an Austin-based technology journalist.