A semiconductor processor could...
|Polish semiconductor wafers and make tiny circuits on their surfaces.||Help develop the fabrication process that makes a microprocessor for use in a hearing aid.|
|Manufacture the fastest computer processing unit (CPU) available.||Troubleshoot and fix problems in equipment used to make semiconductor devices.|
Key Facts & Information
|Overview||What do traffic lights, lasers, and microchips have in common? They are made from special materials called semiconductors. Semiconductors have helped revolutionize technology. If you enjoy hands-on work and are interested in participating in cutting-edge semiconductor technology, then a career as a semiconductor processor maybe of interest to you!|
|Key Requirements||Strong hand-eye coordination and mechanical skills, as well as patience|
|Minimum Degree||Associate's degree|
|Subjects to Study in High School||Chemistry, physics, algebra, geometry, English; if available: computer science, applied technology|
|Projected Job Growth (2014-2024)||Decline Slowly or Moderately (-3% to -9%)|
|Interview||Read these interviews with Daryl Batoosingh and Scott Kenison to learn more about the kinds of projects that semiconductor processing technicians work on.|
Training, Other Qualifications
People interested in becoming semiconductor processors—either operators or technicians—need strong technical skills, an ability to solve problems intuitively, and an ability to work in teams. Mathematics, including statistics, and physical science knowledge are also very useful. Communication skills and an understanding of manufacturing principles are also very important.
To ensure that operators and technicians keep their skills current, employers provide regular on-the-job training. Some employers also provide financial assistance to employees who want to earn an associate or bachelor's degree, especially if the employee is working toward becoming a technician.
Workers advance as they become more comfortable with the equipment and better understand the manufacturing process. Employees train workers for several months, after which they become entry-level operators or technicians. After a few years, as they become more knowledgeable about the operations of the plant, they generally advance to the intermediate level. This entails greater responsibilities. Over time, usually 7 to 10 years, workers may become senior technicians, who lead teams of technicians and work directly with engineers to develop processes in the plant.
Education and Training
For semiconductor processor jobs, employers prefer applicants who have completed an associate degree. However, experience plus completion of a 1-year certificate program in semiconductor technology, offered by some community colleges, may also be sufficient. Some semiconductor technology programs at community colleges include internships at semiconductor fabricating plants. Other applicants may qualify by completing a degree in high-tech manufacturing. Hands-on training is an important part of degree and certificate programs.
This career requires strong written and verbal communication, and teamwork skills. Since some semiconductor processors work with intricate equipment they must have previous good mechanical experience.
Nature of the Work
Semiconductors are unique substances, which, under different conditions, can act as either conductors or insulators of electricity. Semiconductor processors turn one of these substances—silicon—into microchips, also known as integrated circuits. These microchips contain millions of tiny electronic components and are used in a wide range of products, from personal computers and cellular telephones to airplanes and missile guidance systems.
To manufacture microchips, semiconductor processors start with cylinders of silicon called ingots. First, the ingots are sliced into thin wafers. Using automated equipment, workers or robots polish the wafers, imprint precise microscopic patterns of the circuitry onto them using photolithography, etch out patterns with acids, and replace the patterns with conductors, such as aluminum or copper. The wafers then receive a chemical bath to make them smooth, and the imprint process begins again on a new layer with the next pattern. A complex chip may contain more than 20 layers of circuitry. Once the process is complete, wafers are then cut into individual chips, which are enclosed in a casing and shipped to equipment manufacturers.
The manufacturing and slicing of wafers to create semiconductors takes place in cleanrooms—production areas that are kept free of all airborne matter because the circuitry on a chip is so small that even microscopic particles can make it unusable. All semiconductor processors working in cleanrooms must wear special lightweight outer garments known as "bunny suits". These garments fit over clothing to prevent lint and other particles from contaminating the cleanroom.
There are two types of semiconductor processors: operators and technicians. Operators start and monitor the equipment that performs the various production tasks. They spend the majority of their time at computer terminals, monitoring the operation of equipment to ensure that each of the tasks in the production of the wafer is performed correctly. Operators may also transfer wafer carriers from one station to the next, though the lifting of heavy wafer carriers is done by robots in most new fabricating plants.
Technicians are generally more experienced workers who troubleshoot production problems and make equipment adjustments and repairs. They take the lead in assuring quality control and in maintaining equipment. They also test completed chips to make sure they work properly. To keep equipment repairs to a minimum, technicians perform diagnostic analyses and run computations. For example, technicians may determine if a flaw in a chip is due to contamination and peculiar to that wafer, or if the flaw is inherent in the manufacturing process.
The work pace in cleanrooms is deliberately slow. Limited movement keeps the air in cleanrooms as free as possible of dust and other particles, which can destroy microchips during their production. Because the machinery sets the operators' rate of work, workers maintain a relaxed pace. Although workers spend some time alone monitoring equipment, operators and technicians spend much of their time working in teams.
Technicians are on their feet most of the day, walking through the cleanroom to oversee production activities. Operators spend a great deal of time sitting or standing at workstations, monitoring computer readouts and indicators.
The temperature in the cleanrooms must be kept within a narrow range and is generally comfortable for workers. Although bunny suits cover virtually the entire body, their lightweight fabric keeps the temperature inside fairly comfortable. Entry and exit of workers from the cleanroom are controlled to minimize contamination, and workers must be reclothed in a clean bunny suit and decontaminated each time they return to the cleanroom.
Several highly toxic chemicals are used at various points in the process of manufacturing microchips. Workers who are exposed to such chemicals can be seriously harmed. However, fabrication plants are designed with safeguards to ensure that these chemicals are handled, used, and disposed of without exposing workers or the surrounding environment. Toxic chemicals are applied to wafers by computer-controlled machine tools in sealed chambers, and there is normally little risk of workers coming into contact with them.
Semiconductor fabricating plants operate around the clock. Night and weekend work is common. In some plants, workers maintain standard 8-hour shifts, 5 days a week. In other plants, employees are on duty for 12-hour shifts to minimize the disruption of cleanroom operations brought about by changes. Managers may also allow workers to alternate schedules, thereby distributing the overnight shift equitably.
On the Job
- Manipulate valves, switches, and buttons, or key commands into control panels to start semiconductor processing cycles.
- Maintain processing, production, and inspection information and reports.
- Inspect materials, components, or products for surface defects and measure circuitry, using electronic test equipment, precision measuring instruments, microscope, and standard procedures.
- Clean semiconductor wafers using cleaning equipment, such as chemical baths, automatic wafer cleaners, or blow-off wands.
- Study work orders, instructions, formulas, and processing charts to determine specifications and sequence of operations.
- Load and unload equipment chambers and transport finished product to storage or to area for further processing.
- Clean and maintain equipment, including replacing etching and rinsing solutions and cleaning bath containers and work area.
- Place semiconductor wafers in processing containers or equipment holders, using vacuum wand or tweezers.
- Set, adjust, and readjust computerized or mechanical equipment controls to regulate power level, temperature, vacuum, and rotation speed of furnace, according to crystal growing specifications.
- Etch, lap, polish, or grind wafers or ingots to form circuitry and change conductive properties, using etching, lapping, polishing, or grinding equipment.
- Load semiconductor material into furnace.
- Monitor operation and adjust controls of processing machines and equipment to produce compositions with specific electronic properties, using computer terminals.
- Count, sort, and weigh processed items.
- Calculate etching time based on thickness of material to be removed from wafers or crystals.
- Inspect equipment for leaks, diagnose malfunctions, and request repairs.
- Align photo mask pattern on photoresist layer, expose pattern to ultraviolet light, and develop pattern, using specialized equipment.
- Stamp, etch, or scribe identifying information on finished component according to specifications.
- Operate saw to cut remelt into sections of specified size or to cut ingots into wafers.
- Scribe or separate wafers into dice.
- Connect reactor to computer, using hand tools and power tools.
- Mount crystal ingots or wafers on blocks or plastic laminate, using special mounting devices, to facilitate their positioning in the holding fixtures of sawing, drilling, grinding or sanding equipment.
- Attach ampoule to diffusion pump to remove air from ampoule, and seal ampoule, using blowtorch.
- Measure and weigh amounts of crystal growing materials, mix and grind materials, load materials into container, and monitor processing procedures to help identify crystal growing problems.
- Locate crystal axis of ingot, and draw orientation lines on ingot, using x-ray equipment, drill, and sanding machine.
Companies That Hire Semiconductor Processors
Explore what you might do on the job with one of these projects...
Do you have a specific question about a career as a Semiconductor Processor that isn't answered on this page? Post your question on the Science Buddies Ask an Expert Forum.
- BLS. (2016). Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH), 2016 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved July 1, 2017.
- O*Net Online. (2016). National Center for O*Net Development. Retrieved July 1, 2017.
- Batoosingh, D. (2009, November 9). Telephone interview with Science Buddies.
- Kenison, S. (2009, November 13). Telephone interview with Science Buddies.
- YouTube. (2008, August 22). Semiconductor Chip Design, Texas Instruments!. Retrieved December 9, 2009.
- Cabot Microelectronics. (2013, May 29). Cabot Microelectronics Jobs, Semiconductor Careers - Eikoh - Operations, Japan. Retrieved April 29, 2014.
We'd like to acknowledge the additional support of:
- Motorola Solutions
Explore Our Science Videos
Physics and Chemistry of an Explosion Science Fair Project Idea
How to Build an ArtBot
Flower Dissection - STEM Activity