Wafer Doctoring

Wafer Doctoring
Funny, that fab looks a lot like a garage...
Not Chris

I used to work in a wafer fab. I was a process engineer, shuffling 300mm wafers along as they got dry etched (the step that eats away at the various layers of silicon, oxide, metal or whatever other nasty stuff they put on wafers these days). I haven’t worked there in about 3 years now, as I got out of the wafer slingin’ game and now work with the products made in fabs. (system level electrical engineering)

I don’t think about my old job much, but I always seem to while talking to doctors. I can’t help but compare the experiences of being a doctor, specifically an ER doctor, to taking care of wafers and dealing with issues that arise. Now, I’m not trying to say that these are similar in importance (believe me, I wouldn’t have gotten out of the wafer business if I thought it was anywhere as important as saving lives);  still, I’d like to explain some of the similarities that I always come back to when talking to doctor friends.

  1. Weird hours — This one is a no-brainer comparison. In fact, I’d often have conversation with friends who were on a break at their hospital while I was sitting in the fab on gChat. I worked nightshift (a subject that deserves its own post), and the fab is not nearly as active as when the rest of the company is there trying to run process experiments. While this allowed me to be more self-sufficient, a fab is meant to run on its own at night and my job was sometimes glorified wafer babysitting.
  2. Level of activity — This one depends on which fab or hospital you’re at, but I found that working at night was often a quick burst of ahem, stuff, hitting the proverbial “fan” (as in a wafer breaking inside the machines or something that would require hours of work). The rest of the time? Was booooring. You’d sit around waiting for tests to finish or waiting for some kind of action to happen. I hear the same thing from ER friends. And in both situations, you kind of hope for an active shift, where problems arise but are manageable. A slightly busy evening is better than sitting around at 3 in the morning with nothing to do.
  3. Triage — In both the case of ER doctors walking up to a patient the first time and a process engineer walking up to a machine that is processing a wafer the first time, the key is all in the assessing of the situation and responding accordingly. And much like mentioned above, this is the repetitive and low capacity work that happens. It’s not exciting, but it’s a majority of the time. Neither in the ER world nor the wafer world will a patient (or wafer) be dying every minute. And thank goodness for that.
  4. Calling your “attending” — While I’ve heard this happens a TON in the ER (Ok, Ok, I’ve actually only heard of this happening often on Scrubs…), it didn’t happen as much in the fab. One thing that I’m sure is the case for both the ER and the fab is: make sure you have a damn good reason to be getting someone out of bed. In the case of the ER, it’s not unheard of that people are literally dying and the doctor on call has no idea what to do. But in the fab, it’s usually OK to let a few broken wafers go until the morning (depending on the situation). If the power goes out though or the air cleaning system shuts down though, you’d better believe there are some cranky engineers heading into work at 2 am.
  5. Paperwork — Again, I think the ER folks have it much, much worse (thanks, healthcare system!), but there’s a lot of explaining to do at the end of a shift. You need to pass off all relevant information for the next shift to get to work immediately. And while I’m not sure about what happens when an ER doctor “loses a patient”, I can only imagine it’s taken very seriously.  I know I had to explain all of the steps I took when I “lost a patient” (again, reinforcing that these are two very different situations and that wafers don’t matter as much as people. Unless you were my boss….again, another story).
  6. Hierarchy — I’ve heard of the hierarchy in hospitals, especially among doctors, nurses, attendants and on down the chain. I was surprised when I started that there seemed to be a similar hierarchy in fabs! There was a definite division between the engineers and the technicians, along the same lines that I’ve heard about doctors and nurses. On night shift, the separation was much less noticeable, which I was grateful for. The techs were mostly ex-military and had some crazy stories and were a lot of fun to hang out with during the long boring nights when there wasn’t much going on. Still, I can only imagine how much more intense the hierarchy was during day-shift when there were equipment techs, process techs, lower level process engineers (such as me) and the senior engineers. Talk about an unnecessary power struggle. Oof.

I enjoy thinking back to my time as a wafer-slinger in the fab, as there were some good times as well as the bad. I don’t think I’ll ever be working in a fab again but I see what many people enjoy about it. The ER doctors out there have a much harder fight though and if you have the choice, pat a doctor on the back before the process engineer.

What about you? Is your job eerily similar to any other jobs out there? Is it also close to being an ER doctor, invalidating my comparison? Let us know in the comments!