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
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
"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
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
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 technicians—I don't want it to sound like we're training
donkeys here—to 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
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
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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