As the electronics and semiconductor domain continues to explode with complexity, engineers are having to step outside of their comfort zones and take on new roles to keep up with the increasing demands of chip performance. For semiconductor giant NXP’s failure analysis department, training employees and broadening its knowledge base is instrumental in holding the leading edge.
For nearly 25 years, Johan Knol has known exactly where he wanted to be. In 1996, fresh off finishing his master’s degree in electronics with a focus on analog design and semiconductor processing at the University of Twente, he had his eyes set on joining the semiconductor arm of Philips – which was later spun out as NXP. “I saw what Philips was achieving in the semiconductor industry at that time and it was quite impressive. But even then, it was extremely evident to me that the industry needed a major catchup, particularly in the analog-chip world,” recalls Knol, Manager of Failure Analysis for Security and Connectivity at NXP. “I came to Nijmegen to tour their cutting-edge MOS-4 fab, and it really piqued my interest. I knew this was a place where real innovation could be realized, and I wanted to be part of it.”
In his 25 years with the company, Knol has held several positions. First as a device physics engineer, then a process integration engineer – working to improve the overall process from development to manufacturing – before opting for a move to NXP’s failure analysis (FA) department. “I chose failure analysis because it combines all corners of NXP. Essentially, we work in a state-of-the-art silicon debug lab, where my group is responsible for identifying electrical failures within all the new products NXP launches and ensuring all of our products meet the highest quality standards,” describes Knol. “We help the design teams identify issues in the design and manufacturing chains. To do that, NXP provides us with top-of-the-line equipment to handle all the analysis requests, from mixed-signal processing technologies down to 16nm, and using techniques like laser voltage probing, laser frequency mapping and nanoprobing – we do it all.”
One aspect of the silicon domain that Knol has encountered in his 2.5 decades in service is just how quickly the industry seems to be evolving. According to him, engineers, at least in his department, are having to go well beyond their areas of focus and broaden their understanding of NXP’s entire production chain, especially as chip complexity continues to explode. One essential tool he relies on to keep his team sharp: training and personal development.
“Almost no one comes out of university, or even from another department, having a solid grasp of the entire field at NXP. When someone joins our team, they’ve got to learn at least 4-5 different areas of the production chain,” depicts Knol. “It’s only with that knowledge that you can solve the kinds of problems that we get sent to us – ie a chip isn’t working, but with no clue as to why. Typically, new hires have a background in physics or chemistry or electronics, and maybe they’ll even have experience in analog or digital design but hiring someone with expert knowledge on mixed-signal design and these other disciplines doesn’t really happen.”
For Knol, however, it’s precisely this understanding of multiple aspects and disciplines that’s so crucial to the success of NXP’s FA lab, and why he’s a big believer in training. Knol: “Our competence program is primarily focused on broadening the knowledge of our engineers. They need to have a broad view of everything involved in creating a chip.”
One driving force that Knol and NXP have experienced in the semiconductor sphere is the transition from analog to digital chips, or at the very least a combination of the two. “At NXP, we’ve had a shift from truly analog design to embedding digital more and more – so mixed-signal designs – and it’s happening ridiculously fast,” says Knol. “But even products that were 100 percent analog in the past, for good reasons, are now embedding more digital cores.”
Knol uses the example of NXP’s smart antenna solutions product line for 5G applications, where they used to deliver single RF transistors or RF low-noise amplifiers but now have started embedding digital content in that line of chips. “These chips are now much more complex, and the engineers that have spent years perfecting the analog design are now suddenly facing products with digital content. At first, they didn’t know how to deal with that, how to interpret that, or even how to test.”
That’s when NXP’s FA department reached out to High Tech Institute and arranged for an in-company session of the “Test and design-for-test for digital integrated circuits” training. “This shift to digital isn’t going to go away, it’s only going to become more prevalent. As a unit, we decided we needed to establish new competencies in this domain and this training was a perfect opportunity,” highlights Knol. “We chose HTI because of its undeniable link to the high-tech industry. They have a strong understanding of the domain because the trainers are actually from the industry. More importantly, we were able to work directly with them to tune the content of the course to our specific needs. That was the real strength that we saw in HTI.”
Of course, the success of any technology company depends on highly skilled and highly technical people. Sometimes, however, success can also stem from the soft skills of employees – such as good communication, stakeholder management and using time in the most efficient ways. But as the complexity continues to increase, and engineers are taking on more responsibility, sometimes the soft skills can be a challenge. “We have some really outstanding minds at NXP. Our engineers are some of the best in the world. But one thing we’ve found is that the most specialized technical people can often be lacking when it comes to soft skills,” Knol describes. “Efficiency being key in an environment like this means every day you’re being challenged to do more in your daily efforts.”
This can be a little tricky when trying to balance work, meetings, planning and the many personalities you encounter in the workplace. That’s why NXP adopted another training from HTI: “Time management in innovation.” “We saw that people were struggling with time management. To be honest, I was one of them myself. So, we took this training and made it a default course for our people – meaning at some point in time, everyone should take it. And it’s from personal experience that I can say this training is extremely helpful,” states Knol. “People came back from this course having learned new tools to embed better planning in their work, learning how best to establish boundaries and how to address the issues they face in communicating with others. So yeah, that has become another default module that we offer to our people. Time management, education, self-reflection, taking leadership and working in project teams on a global scale. These are the kinds of courses that have become quite important to us. We believe that by investing in these trainings to help our workers enhance their personal development, it makes us a stronger department within NXP.”