Future Technician Preparation: Micro and Nano Technologies

Our presentation on Future of Work issues this month is like the script of a 1950's cowboy movie.  (Those movies were only interesting when they cut to the chase.) Thus far this FLATE Focus series has touched on the Future of Work related to the NSF-ATE program's focus on advanced manufacturing technologies, agricultural and bio-technologies, energy, environmental technologies and Information technology. This month our " Work to do for Future Technician Preparation theme" shifts to micro- and nano- technologies.  As in previous issues, the question is how new technologies influence the technical workforce and what do future technicians have to do to secure knowledge of and comfort level with related specific subsets of existing STEM connected skills.  We will address, security technologies, and geospatial technologies as the year progresses.

  Our motivation for this series has a twofold intent.  One is for you the other is for us.  First new technology in the workplace does generate different expectations for the technician workforce.  Second, we want to engage as many people interested in the development of the nation's technician workforce into the conversation as to how NSF can facilitate lowering the impact of that skills gap.

 Technician duties within micro- and nano- technologies can easily slide into one of three broad activity categories; manipulation, metrology, and maintenance.  In all three of these classifications, new technology will impact what the technician needs to know.  However, these new technologies impact the technician differently in each category.

 “Manipulation” is the broad term that best describes what technicians and advanced operators will be doing inside the clean room as the wafer is manipulated into finished devices.  Human operations inside the cleanroom are and will continue to dramatically (but just not easily noticeable) change.  If you have ever looked through a cleanroom window, what you saw was people walking along sometimes long aisle between rows of equipment working at operator interface stations.  If you look through one of those windows today, people are still walking around in “bunny suits” working at operator stations, however, you will not see anyone moving wafers between process step anymore.  The wafer size (weight) and its value (very large number of very small devices on the wafer) now require no human contact with the product.  Many other industries are newly exposed to robotics but production scale manufacture of micro and nano-devices anywhere in the world is now completely automated.

 Does that mean that tomorrow’s technicians and advanced operators inside cleanrooms don’t have anything new to learn or need to know what previous technicians knew?  That is absolutely not true, however, they still will not have to know much about robotics.  A new skill set they will need is part of the theme of the next episode of this FLATE Focus series.

“Metrology” is another classic technician workspace with an equally steady state portfolio of skills and knowledge requirements.  Even so, there are new expectations of those technicians because of the insertion of new technology into that environment.  As analytical chemistry related instrumentation becomes more sophisticated, different wafer inspection and device quality control tools are being integrated into the same workstation interface.  This requires the technician to have a broader perspective of what the limitations of each tool has relative to quality control decisions as the wafers move from initial substrate purity to final device operation characterization.  In addition, advanced computer augmentation of some spectroscopy methods makes those tools now applicable outside the research and development (R&D) mode and useful as part of device production processes.  Raman and atomic force spectroscopies are just two examples.  The most interesting impact of this change on technician education is the need to incorporate focused STEM components from chemistry and physics into their curriculum. However, as with technicians within the “manipulation” career path, what else they will need to know is part of the theme of the next episode of this FLATE Focus series.

Finally, technicians that are involved in the “maintenance” category.  It is this technician workspace that brings us back to those great cowboy movies. Maintenance technicians in micro- and nano- technology production facilities work in the long hallways, the Chase, outside the cleanroom.  Just as sure as the “boy meets girl”, “boy falls in love with girl”, “bad guy kidnaps girl” scenes of those movies triggered the “cut to the chase” where our hero rides his trusty steed to save the damsel in distress, similarly a process disturbance generated in the “manipulation” and/or “metrology” technician workspaces triggers the maintenance technicians to perform “chase” activities in that maintenance workspace. 

Now that almost total automation dominates the cleanroom, the area connected to but not in the cleanroom (the Chase) is where all maintenance operations begin and most often conclude.  This reality will drive time duration constrained micro and nano technician education programs to attenuate the device technology portion of their curriculum to allow an increased focus on cross-technology mechatronics skills training.  The manufacture of small-scale devices requires specific low-pressure environments and precise delivery of reaction and masking chemicals and films. Faults in the production line often stem from improper pressure and chemical environments.  The proper combination of those additive and subtractive manufacturing process requirements is controlled (adjusted) and/or returned to expected steady state values via equipment resident in the Chase.  Thus, decisions technicians make in the Chase are critical to production and the industry’s zero downtime (ZDT) manufacturing practices.      

"The work to do starts with you." is and will continue to be our “cut to the chase” exit approach for each of these Focus Future of Work explorations.  Micro- and nanodevice production will require less personnel in the “manipulation” processes with additional people working in and around the Chase to remove equipment downtime. The “metrology” crews will have to adjust to smarter analytical tools and appreciate the impact of the overlapping information they provide.  However, to adjust technician education to these general realities requires more specific guidance from this industry.  So, as you might have expected, the last message now is that we need the people that are in this industry (floor engineers, supervisors, and technicians across the plant) to tell us what is needed.  What should technician preparation programs spend the time and money on?

NSF-ATE is listening and can put its resources into action in response to what it hears so now is the time to speak up.  Think about the skills needed. Contact us.  Send us your thoughts.

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