Column: Inside the box innovation
16 Feb 2012
- Last Updated on Tuesday, 17 July 2012 16:38
- Published on Friday, 17 February 2012 01:00
- Written by Spencer Leese and Taran Harman | WaferTech
- Hits: 1949
People describe innovation as thinking “outside the box.” However, that may not always work in a complex manufacturing environment.
WaferTech, as part of the world’s largest semiconductor foundry Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), faces many barriers to change while at the same time trying to continuously improve quality, productivity and contain costs. Fostering a culture of innovation in this environment can be as challenging as the semiconductor manufacturing process itself.
Our mature manufacturing process requires nanometer-scale precision on several process layers and hundreds of process steps to produce one wafer full of integrated circuits. Operating in our cleanroom environment requires employee discipline. Maintaining more than 1,000 pieces of process, test and facilities equipment requires attention to detail. Like the princess and the pea or the butterfly effect, a small change in one step can impact another significantly.
Another reason changes may be difficult to implement is that the products manufactured at WaferTech and the other TSMC manufacturing facilities (fabs) have direct influence on people’s lives. Integrated circuits from WaferTech may be found in your smartphone or laptop, your car’s electronic systems or even in a pacemaker. Our customers demand consistent processes across all TSMC fabs.
WaferTech employees include more than 400 production specialists, 200 technicians and 200 engineers. We combine the experience gained from 14 years of production at our Camas site and the expertise of our sister fabs in Taiwan to conduct experiments and identify opportunities for system improvement. We use a cross-fab “best-known methods” system for ensuring that improvements in one area get shared to all. We also use thousands of precise operating instructions to ensure consistency.
Twice a year,, we hold a Continuous Improvement Team competition, and award prizes to the teams that create the most value by solving a longstanding problem, or make a breakthrough in quality. More than 24 cross-functional teams participate in each competition, and innovation is a key component in judging.
Some of the ideas that come from our employees become patents. WaferTech files between four and ten U.S. patents each year, and TSMC as a whole filed for nearly 1,000 in 2011. Even more valuable, however, are the thousands of techniques and improvements that become our trade secrets. We require strict compliance with our proprietary information protection program to ensure that we do not lose these efficiencies to our competitors.
Engineering projects in recent years have focused on embedded flash memory technology development, defect elimination, an energy-saving process cooling water system and meeting stricter automotive standards for quality and reliability.
All ideas are considered because making many small incremental changes can lead to big improvements in overall quality and productivity. As we evolve from a general-purpose logic manufacturer to more specialty technologies with unique characteristics, we create opportunities to shape our world through innovation, and often times that means thinking “inside the box.”