“This is the Champions League in mechatronics”

Engineering in semiconductor equipment applications; high precision and complexity

To our engineering teams, the words ‘it cannot be done’ work like a magic charm. They take pride in solving the seemingly impossible. In the interview series ‘Our eureka moment’, engineers talk about these breakthroughs; what challenges did they face and how did they overcome them, together with their colleagues?

Small size comes with high complexity. If this is true anywhere, it is in the semiconductor industry. In the pursuit of more computing power and storage capacity, chips get smaller, and so every new generation of production equipment needs to raise the precision bar.

A mechatronics team at Philips Engineering Solutions is currently working on a module of the next generation in semiconductor equipment. This module positions wafers in the machine. The magic happens when a precision level of a few nanometers – a human hair has a thickness of ~100,000 nanometer – meets extreme accelerations to meet high wafer throughput requirements.

The positioning module is the mechanical heart of the machine, says Erik Manders, Principal Systems Architect: “What it basically does, is take two wafers, position them in the machine, after which a pattern is exposed roughly 100 times on them using light. This creates the nanometer-sized features needed for the semiconductors to work. This also happens fast: the process is repeated over 200 times per hour, or one wafer every ~15 seconds.”

“Our module has thousands of parts. For each of these we need to be able to calculate exactly how they contribute to the disturbance of the machine as a whole.”

Erik Manders, Principal Systems Architect

 

The combination of small size and high speed makes that precision levels need to be astoundingly high. “There is very little room for disturbances. We need to take into account everything; if the floor on which the machine stands shakes a little, which it will, it needs to be within a certain disturbance range. Even the water moving through the machine will cause a disturbance. The same applies for the cable in our module that needs to move. All in all, our module has thousands of parts. For each of these we need to be able to calculate exactly how they contribute to the disturbance of the machine as a whole.”

Collaboration is key

Adding another layer of complexity is the interdependency of all components, submodules and modules. “This means that we constantly have to calculate and test. And because everything ties together, we are continuously in discussion with each other.”

As an architect, Erik oversees the entire Philips team that works on the project. “Originally, I was specialized in mechanics. Mechatronics is a wonderful field where mechanics meets electronics, but also control, dynamics, software, and so on. On this project alone, we have several teams of designers that work on submodules. Parallel there are multiple architects, like thermal, dynamic architects and specialists in vacuum and industrial engineering. You can see it as a rather complex matrix organization.”

Complexity not only exists within the team structure, but also in the outside world in which it operates: “Currently dozens of teams across several organizations are developing this complex machine in parallel. This is a typical example of concurrent engineering; we constantly need to align with our customer, because the different modules need to connect and work together.”

“The machine that we are working on represents a quantum leap within this technology that only happens once every decade. This is really the Champions League in mechatronics.”

Erik Manders, Principal Systems Architect

 

For mechatronics professionals, the project is extremely rewarding, says Erik: “The machine that we are working on represents a quantum leap within this technology that only happens once every decade. This is really the Champions League in mechatronics.”

Erik operates as the glue that ties the team together. “We have a lot of very smart and capable people who know a lot more about their area of expertise than I do. It is my job to be the conductor, to see the bigger picture, getting everything together. It often requires troubleshooting; if someone has an issue, we all work together to find a solution. I strongly believe that once you have clearly defined a problem, you are already halfway solving it.

In a complex environment like ours, the best eureka moments happen when we interact and build upon each other. That is when the magic happens, when different people with different expertise put their heads together. Somehow, the solution often comes from an unexpected place. The creative power that can exist in a team like this never ceases to amaze me.”

 

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