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Annual Engineering Event Stimulates Cross-Divisional Innovation

With its technical talent dispersed worldwide, leveraging ideas developed by Applied Materials engineering teams is a big challenge. A series of annual internal technology meetings, Applied’s Engineering and Technology (ET) Conference program, has become an effective way to bring together the company’s engineers from far-flung regions to collaborate on innovative technology concepts and exchange ideas on processes, equipment, and support services.

Held annually since 1985, the ET Conferences are organized much the same as the largest engineering society meetings. Contributed abstracts are subjected to a peer review process to select the best papers, and awards are given to the top-rated presentations.

The main global ET Conference is preceded by regional conferences in cities including Santa Clara, Bangalore, Hsinchu, and Tel Aviv, which "give many more people an opportunity to present their work. When you add it all up, close to 2,500 of our engineers and technologists can actually participate each year," said Robert Visser, a senior director in Applied’s Chief Technical Officer (CTO) organization.

Applied CEO Gary Dickerson kicked off the 2016 global ET Conference in Las Vegas in December, welcoming nearly 1000 of the company’s top engineers and technologists. He encouraged them to collaborate across business units and functions to facilitate the important future technology inflections that will enable customers to achieve their goals .

Applied Materials CEO Gary Dickerson speaks to attendees at the opening of the 2016 ET Conference in Las Vegas.

Exchanging Ideas at All Levels

Shinichi Kurita, an Applied Materials Fellow who works in the company's display equipment business, was a 2016 recipient of a lifetime achievement award as part of a team working on PECVD display tools.

Parts of the display industry are moving from liquid crystal displays (LCDs) to organic light-emitting diode (OLED) screens which have the added benefit of flexibility. Kurita’s group has been working on developing PECVD equipment which can deposit the OLED barrier layers required to keep out moisture, while preserving the benefit of flexibility.

"Recently, most of our key customers have been shifting to OLED, so our technology needs to change," Kurita said. Because the organic layer must be deposited at much lower temperatures compared with thin-film transistors, the barrier layer processes also must adapt to low-temperature requirements.

"There are a lot of major innovations required for OLED production, and we have been working on it for more than ten years. The encapsulation layer actually involves many different layers, including barrier layers and cushion layers. For OLEDs to be flexible, we have to work with plastic, which is easy to bend" compared with glass-based LCDs, he said.

Kurita said the ET conferences are "very effective" at fostering human interactions. "Applied has so many engineers spread out among many groups and products, and we do not have many opportunities to exchange ideas that cross over to other groups."

He noted that the event also brings together guest speakers including executives and scientists from industry and academia who put technology development into a larger perspective. "The conference’s keynote speakers remind us that our ultimate goal is to contribute to society."

Bernard Kress, principal optical architect for Microsoft on the Hololens project and previously for Google on their Glass project, was a keynote speaker at the 2016 ET Conference. "The hardware limitations in optics are a major roadblock, and there are some difficult technical challenges ahead in nanofabrication of novel optical elements at consumer price levels," he said.

Kress said "augmented (AR) and mixed reality (MR) systems will revolutionize the way we communicate, learn and explore, shop, play and be entertained, and be more productive in our private and professional lives." He called upon Applied Materials to help make this revolution happen by developing equipment and technologies that will enable high end MR systems to enter the consumer market.

Keynote speaker Bernard Kress at the 2016 ET Conference.

A Winning ALD Solution

The heart of the ET program is the desire of practicing engineers to present their best work before an audience of co-workers and senior managers. The meetings highlight inventions from throughout the company which have delivered new capabilities to customers and proved commercially successful for Applied Materials.

In many cases, that work is done in collaborative fashion, sometimes across continents.

Kevin Papke, director of engineering at Applied Global Services (AGS), led a team which won one of two coveted 2015 ET Overall Engineering Excellence awards for its work with a metal oxide process innovation. The effort, conducted jointly by Applied teams based in Santa Clara and Mumbai, sought to figure out why buildup on a part during an atomic layer deposition (ALD) barrier process was detracting from the customer’s mean time between preventive maintenance (MTBP). The effort eventually resulted in a thin oxide ALD process that reduced aluminum buildup, Papke said.

The process resulted in resolution of the aluminum buildup problem for customers and a commercial success for the ALD operation.

"Before, a lot of the work we did was figuring out how give an equipment group the cheapest possible clean on certain parts. Now, we are collaboratively engineering a better surface," he said.

Kevin Papke (left) accepts an ET Overall Engineering Excellence Award on behalf of the ALD development team from Applied Materials executives Steve Ghanayem(center) and Ali Salehpour (right).

Green to Green

Applied data scientist Jianping Zou developed an ET conference paper describing how to reduce the time it takes to tune an epi process after a preventive maintenance (PM) routine, restoring the tool quickly to its previous level of performance. "Green-to-green" time refers to the time required to take a tool down from a good state of operation, do the PM, perform the required number of pilot runs, then restore it to a "green light" state of production.

A run-to-run control expert, Zou said he is working with other Applied developers on models to significantly reduce the green-to-green time on epi tools. The work is part of a service offering being developed by Applied Global Services.

A colleague, Kommisetti Subrahmanyam, develops algorithms which are used by the service technology group for predictive maintenance (PdM), a cutting-edge field that allows many customers to extend the life of components. A native of India, he earned his doctorate in Singapore and joined Applied Materials at its Singapore office nearly seven years ago.

Part of a development team, Subrahmanyam presented work on epi lamp predictive maintenance models at a satellite ET Conference held in Singapore. The challenge with PdM models is that they must adapt to the changing condition of the tool state.

"It is quite natural to keep changing the model, because the hardware keeps changing. When change happens, we must figure out how it impacts the model," Subrahmanyam said.

Bending Minds

While technologists are developing more flexible displays and PdM models, flexiblity and creative thinking are the goals of the ET conferences.

Applied Materials Chief Technical Officer (CTO) Om Nalamasu, the lead sponsor of the ET Conference program, noted that ET has been going on for three decades now.

"In good times or bad, we invest in this program because it works," Nalamasu said. "Ideas are exchanged that pay off for our customers and our company, problems are solved creatively, and new innovations are inspired and nurtured.

"If we can bend and stretch people’s minds, ET will be a success," he said.

For additional information, contact Nanochip_editor@amat.com.

Om Nalamasu, Applied Materials Chief Technical Officer and sponsor of the ET Conference program.