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Pace of training picks up again for semiconductor industry

TRAINING DAYS: Companies offering online courses and live seminars to the semiconductor industry have seen business pick up recently.

School is always in session for the semiconductor industry, with fab training courses as much of a necessity as silicon. But during the recent downturn and in the aftermath of 9/11, chipmakers and equipment vendors coped by cutting training and travel budgets. Some training firms and individual instructors saw business plummet.

"It is true that in the down times the industry really cuts down . . .on training budgets," says Mehrdad Moslehi, chairman and CEO of Semizone, a leading provider of online learning content and Web services. During the worst of the industry slump, funds were reduced, "in some cases, severely."

Stanley Wolf is a veteran instructor with a 20-year record as a professor with UC Berkeley Extension and the author of a four-volume standard text, Silicon Processing for the VLSI Era. Wolf's business calendar showed a lot of white space in the aftermath of 9/11 and the dot-com crash. Seminars that typically had 75 to 100 attendees dropped to 50. After the 9/11 tragedy, only two people showed up for one seminar. "I went from 100 down to 2," Wolf laments. "It was like someone shut off the spigot."

In the past year and a half, though, a few of the companies that specialize in semiconductor fab instruction report that business has picked up following several years of low turnout caused by the industry slump and customer budget cutbacks.

"All the large companies are coming back to us and doing more training," says Denny Frye, CEO and founder of PTI Seminars. Attendance at the 11 seminars that PTI sponsored during Semicon West in mid-July rose "about 25 to 30%."

Semiconductor Services reports increased activity as well. "I've seen a little bit of a pickup because we've used this downtime as an opportunity to generate new products. For example, we have a new DVD and a new book out," says Anne Miller, a principal with the San Francisco-based training company.

Wolf conducted a three-day seminar in Santa Clara, CA, "that was sold out and went very well." Attendees ranged from technicians "up to the CEO level," says Wolf, who has had to cut staff.

In an earlier interview at PTI's booth at Semicon West, Frye had expressed a concern that training cutbacks could affect manufacturers' ability to keep pace with rapidly advancing technological demands. "You've got to spend money on training and R&D in order to survive," he insisted.

"Denny's comment does make sense," agrees Miller, "if only because training is integral to best business practices." To a great extent, she adds, training influences the ability of the employees to be productive, "and so, if we"re to hire new employees, Denny's absolutely right."

In a follow-up discussion the week after Semicon West, Frye remains upbeat. "I personally think training budgets are coming back," he says, noting that manufacturers allocate training money in October for the upcoming year. "The situation has been picking up substantially."

During Semicon West 2004, approximately 100 people attended PTI's courses, Frye says. This past July at the 2005 trade show, more than 125 persons attended 11 seminars. Some classes had only four or five students, he says. However, at least 45 students signed up for the advanced wet etching and cleaning class this year. He attributes the popularity of the class to the reputation of the instructor and the fact that "cleaning is becoming more and more important as you shrink devices down."

Meanwhile, companies such as Applied Materials, Freescale Semiconductor, and Texas Instruments have again begun to contact PTI, according to Frye. He points out that Freescale hasn't worked with PTI in the last three years. TI, he adds, usually schedules "about 60 classes a year."

Frye cites several reasons for the increased business for PTI, which has 27 instructors and a support staff of seven or eight persons. Overall improvements in the economy and in the semiconductor industry's fortunes have led manufacturers to rehire more employees, who need training, he says. "They need to be trained in new technologies," including copper deposition as well as advanced etching and cleaning, for example.

Moslehi believes Semizone's online learning business model puts the company in a better position to tap into manufacturers" tighter training budgets. "We know that in our case training dollars were certainly channeled through what they considered to be more-cost-effective ways of training their workforce with better return on investment, and that is the online education and training that we provide."

Semizone offers "the broadest array of content available online for the semiconductor industry," Moslehi claims. "We have over 350 courses and curriculum programs, and we're continually updating the existing programs and adding new online courses."

As chipmakers and equipment suppliers bring in new hires or reassign current employees, courses that cover fundamental semiconductor manufacturing practices for technician training are popular, Moslehi notes. Courses covering technologies such as copper interconnect and low-k materials and the latest developments in both front- and back-end technologies are also well subscribed. Highly specialized courses for more-senior scientists and engineers typically have lower enrollment figures than programs that cover fundamentals, he notes.

"Since we launched our services five years ago, we have substantially grown our business in terms of volume enrollments and market share," Moslehi notes. Overall business has grown consistently year by year, although he won't reveal by how much. "I can definitely tell you that there has been healthy growth of Semizone and our corporate customer base," which partners with the Stanford University Center for Professional Development.

Content quality and quantity, as well as cost savings, are the major reasons that Semizone's client list includes TI, Intel, IBM, AMD, Applied Materials, Novellus, and MKS Instruments, Moslehi says. "E-learning," as the executive calls it, is an attractive choice because it's available on demand. In addition, the courses are modular "building blocks requiring 20-40 minutes of study time" that allow the user to "basically go through the program in a self-paced mode."

The alternative is using multiple providers that require attendance at "live events that you would have to plan for," Moleshi says. Travel costs also have to be factored in. "We know that during the downturn, obviously, travel budgets were cut back quite a bit, training budgets were cut back, and we saw that as a positive for us in terms of a healthy growth in our market share."

As a purveyor of live seminars, Frye naturally believes that the semiconductor fab is too complex an environment for learning by laptop. "There is money for training. What we've noticed is that [customers] like to go to the cheapest method of training. With the technology as sophisticated as it is, and becoming more sophisticated, as it has, it's hard to do online training properly. You can answer questions, and answering questions can make all the difference in the world. We have decided to stay with instructor training, as we've always done."

Wolf acknowledges Semizone's preeminence in the training field and agrees that not having to travel "is good news. The bad news is there's no interaction with instructors." He calls online training "a mixed bag."

Miller and Semiconductor Services straddle both worlds. The industry veteran and her colleagues now offer their seminars through Semizone as well. She says that they had been approached by Moslehi, who asked if they'd like to partner with Semizone. "It was a hard decision," Miller recalls. "You don"t know if you're taking away your own business. It's kind of like, 'this is the wave of the future to have online Web training.'

"I can see for small numbers it's certainly more advantageous to subscribe to this one class on Semizone and take out of it what you can," she continues. "In fact, it's probably the only feasible way to do it. But Semizone has been very successful with some of the manufacturers. It has contracts with some of the major IC manufacturers as well as the major equipment manufacturers. I think in those cases, the expedience, the breadth of the curriculum, and the cost are all factors."

Nevertheless, Miller still places her confidence in the live in-class experience. "Those of us who have stuck to our seminar business believe we have an added benefit to the Web-based training, but we're kind of praying to God and rowing to shore, because we have our classes on the Web as well."

The downturn forced both IC manufacturers and the supplier community to downsize and caused tool manufacturers in particular to outsource their manufacturing, Miller says. As a result, they don't have as many employees to train. Frye notes the outsourcing trend as well and is adapting PTI's offerings to include design- and R&D-related courses. With business moving to Asia, "you've got to think globally here," and PTI plans to host some seminars in Singapore this September. For its part, Semizone recently announced a partnership with IMEC, the university-based research consortium in Leuven, Belgium.

The debate, if you will, over the two training models and the need for technical instruction leaves out a fundamental question, according to Bob Simington of Intel. "If you're talking about [training] technicians, I've never been convinced that the technical training that we provide to technicians is effective anyway."

Simington, a certified performance technologist who left Intel's Fab 12 to work in the chipmaker's 300-mm program, quickly adds: "It's really funny that that [statement] gets quoted all the time. People don't get the second half of the sentence: 'But I could be wrong, because we have no way to prove it.'"

Based on his experience as an instructor and researcher, Simington has concluded that the industry "spends an inordinate amount of money training technicians" and expends a great deal of effort to determine the return on investment of all facets of the manufacturing process, "but they don't do that with training. They currently don't have the ability to look at any delta in the performance of technicians."

The matter of technicians and training turns on the issue of emerging technologies, Simington believes. When Intel began 300-mm processing, everyone told him that training would become an enormous problem because the new wafer process is so complicated. "My reply to them was, 'When are we going to begin magnetically levitating wafers'" The first 300-mm process for Intel was based on process 1260, which was just another version of Intel's 860 process. We used the same tools, the same technology. There was no emerging technology. The biggest difference was the increase in the amount of automation and handling systems. So there was more of it, but it wasn't anything that was fantastic."

Intel has cut back its training budget, says Simington, who says his travel is "one-tenth of what it was three years ago." He says the downturn offered a "good excuse for companies to cut down on travel. As it turns out, I don't think there's been any loss as far as the ability of semiconductor manufacturers to produce product."

The industry veteran believes "confounding factors" other than technical instruction may affect a worker's performance. "Many times, people don't perform the way you want them to because they have never been told explicitly what you expect, or because they're not getting feedback on their performance so they can determine whether they're complying or not."

Simington says the best definition he's seen so far of an exemplary fab technician came from a discussion he had with a dispatcher for the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway. Adapting the dispatcher's definition as he applied it to his job, Simington determined that good technicians are defined by "their ability to keep their equipment running as well as they possibly can, for as long as they can, with the least cost."

He asserts that industry should develop workers' multitasking skills. "We can train techniciansI don't want it to sound like we're training donkeys hereto perform specific tasks, and we can get them to a level where they're very proficient, but if you look at the most effective technicians, they're always the ones who can multitask. That's a particularly difficult thing to teach somebody. To be able to make split-second decisions. It's not a particular area or tool or function."

Terry Everett, the training manager for AMD's Fab 25, says the flash-memory factory is in a unique position in relation to training because Sematech is a microchip's throw away in Austin. He says that the strong partnership with the research consortium allows him to bring in "technically competent individuals" with leading-edge credentials for speeches and workshops. "As engineers, that's what they're always looking for: 'What's leading edge? Am I there?'"

Everett relates how the chipmaker "invested millions of dollars and thousands of man-hours" in the late 1980s through the mid-1990s in its Journey to Excellence Program to bring the workforce up to the highest industry standards. Lately, the fab has been putting its resources behind training on how to use software for data analysis, particularly as it applies to process and equipment troubleshooting.

He asserts that there are two means of measuring training effectiveness. One is by examining and monitoring manufacturing metrics such as line yield, sort yield, and cycle time. The other method for rating effectiveness "is at the individual level. Employees have development plans . . . and always included in those plans is training need. 'What kind of training are we going to give you, and what do you expect to see as a result of that?'"

The training manager says "a huge part of the capability of Fab 25 . . . is to be able to manage several different priorities at the same time. We do that in two ways. One is by developing the workforce to be able to understand the need for that [skill]. They are mentored through that process." Multitasking is "embedded in how we do work here. I would say a huge advantage for us is [that] we are able to empower the workforce to make those kinds of decisions."

Everett believes that another way of empowering employees is "to take away some of that multitask decision-making by having automated systems" that take some of those decisions out of their hands. "If you're using a fab with several different product lines and also doing development work at the same time, you need to have systems that help manage those decisions."

Elaborate automated systems in the wafer fab allow technicians to prioritize certain product "to meet certain demands of the customers with a keystroke," the AMD trainer says. "With minor tweaking or prioritizing, we can make sure that the correct product is run in the correct order."

That, too, may be a good definition of effective training.—JC

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