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The Flex Factor with... Yichen

flexciton flex factor optimization ai production scheduling semiconductor wafer fab

In this month’s edition of The Flex Factor, we introduce one of our QA Engineers: Yichen Tian. Have a read to find out what this serial multitasker does during her day-to-day.

Tell us what you do at Flexciton?

I am a QA engineer in the Chrysalis team, which involves checking if the result of our development makes sense with automated and manual tests. I’ve also recently joined our Platform Engineering Team, whose mission is to make other developer’s lives easier by building faster CI/CD pipelines and laying the ground work of our architecture.

What does a typical day look like for you at Flexciton?

My day starts with a coffee and then a short gathering with all the team members to share updates and prepare for the day. During the day I discuss with developers about the appropriate outcomes of different user scenarios and meddle with services like GitLab and Kubernetes for the rest of my day.

What do you enjoy most about your role?

I feel it’s the excitement. As a QA I constantly switch contexts and have more than three tasks simultaneously on a busy day. I also troubleshoot pipelines and any breakage in our app and that constant change excites me.

What career advice would you give to your younger self?

To quote a member of the team, just keep swimming.

If you could do it all over again, would you pursue the same career?

I know it sounds like a cliche but I don’t regret the decisions I have made along the way. However I would love to work in an animal shelter for some time if the opportunity arises.

If you could summarise working at Flexciton in 3 words, what would they be?

Inspiring, supportive, fun.

Tell us about your best memory at Flexciton?

There are so many amazing memories I have at Flexciton! Most of them are from team trips and day to day banter. One of the best has to be swimming in the sea together and watching my colleagues play beach football in Portugal.

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renesas production scheduling wafer fab efficiency skills shortage semiconductor industry semiconductors
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Flexciton’s Software Trial at Renesas Tackles One of the Most Complex Aspects of Fab Scheduling

Timelinks are one of the most challenging scheduling problems found in a wafer fab and were causing a particular problem for Renesas Electronics' US fab. After seeing the potential performance gains with our software trial, they decided to go ahead with full implementation.

Timelink constraints are one of the most complex issues to handle in fab scheduling. They define the maximum allowed time between steps in the production of a wafer. Correct scheduling of timelinks is critical to helping minimise the risks of oxidation or contamination. This can happen when a wafer is queuing outside of a tool for too long, resulting in scrappage or rework that damages profitability. Renesas Electronics asked Flexciton to see if its intelligent scheduling software could improve this aspect of scheduling in the diffusion area of its wafer fab.

Fig. 1

What makes timelink constraints very hard to schedule is their interdependence. For example, by moving from step one to step two, the wafer enters the first timelink. When moving from step two, the wafer enters a second timelink which lasts until step 4. However, there can also be a third timelink constraint – known as a nested timelink – between step three and step four which overlaps the second timelink constraint (see Fig. 1). Therefore, step three has to be scheduled in a way that allows for both the second and third timelink constraints to be adhered. This example discussed is just for a few steps but, in reality, there could be hundreds of steps and many overlapping time constraints that need to be continually considered. This creates one of the most complex scheduling problems seen in a wafer fab, and any violation of the timelinks has a negative financial impact. 

The most commonly used scheduling approach is based on heuristics, using a set of if-then operational rules that have been manually programmed and require constant maintenance. This is a relatively simplistic methodology that has hardly changed over the past two decades and thus cannot effectively solve today’s much more challenging scheduling problems. In modern day fabs, very complex, multi-dimensional problems are common on a daily basis and existing heuristic approaches don’t have the built-in intelligence to look ahead to future steps. 

Flexciton’s next-gen scheduling software is the only solution on the market that is able to do this. It pairs powerful mathematical optimisation technology with smart decomposition techniques to work out solutions with complete autonomy. It has the ability to generate an optimised production schedule within a few minutes by searching through billions of scenarios to select the best possible one. Importantly, its intelligent algorithms consider the knock-on effects that one change can have against all the other constraints in the fab – including timelinks. This repeating iterative process ensures that it is continually updating the schedule to allow for any changes in fab conditions or business objectives.

The software was run in a simulation environment that replicated the way that Flexciton’s scheduler would have run live at the Renesas fab. The results showed that a significant improvement in reducing timelink violations of 29% could be achieved.  Additional improvements would be possible of a 22% reduction in the number of batches and an 11% reduction in queue time despite these two KPIs being conflicting (see Fig. 2). This is because decreasing the number of batches naturally means increasing the number of wafers in each batch, but this increases the queue times for each batch as operators wait for new wafers to arrive at the tool before processing them together. 

Currently, most fabs have no knowledge of the arrival times for future lots so operators can sometimes wait unnecessarily to maximise a batch size, causing more wafers to queue and damaging productivity. Uniquely, the Flexciton scheduler can see how lots are moving in time and can thus optimise the trade-off between number of batches and queue time to achieve the impressive gains seen on these conflicted KPIs.  

Renesas were impressed with the simulation figures. Jay Maguire, Engineer at Renesas, commented, “Flexciton was able to show us several specific decisions we could have done differently to improve batching and cycle time. We are pursuing a live trial of the Flexciton software.”

Fig. 2

Jamie Potter, Flexciton’s co-founder and CEO, explained, “The key differentiator of our approach is that our software has the intelligence to predict what may happen in the future based on the current state of a fab (or WIP in a fab). It searches for the best solution amongst billions of possibilities to continuously keep finding the optimal schedule that meets the KPIs to maximise a fab’s productivity and profitability. Humans and heuristics just can’t do that.” 

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Scheduling as a Cornerstone of the Smart Factory [Part 1]

The problem with complex systems is that there’s so much variability and interaction, it's hard to get actionable insights from data. In Part 1 of this blog, Ben Van Damme explains that instead of accepting the complex nature of a fab, factories can control it using advanced scheduling.

One of the consequences of the pandemic has been an incentive to deglobalise, as regions suffered from the issues with supply chains and geopolitical dependencies. Significant delivery issues in the chip industry – and in particular wafer manufacturing – have had a negative impact on the global economy. However, onshoring this high technology industry will also bring its own challenges. Expertise and cost efficiency to name a couple. Zooming in a bit closer on so-called wafer fabs, we can distinguish two types of factories. The legacy and smaller fabs serving niche markets with older technology nodes, and the cutting-edge giga-factories, recently built or in the making. Both types have different problems to tackle, but one key component of their roadmap could be surprisingly similar.

The newest fabs have well integrated automated systems, but operating them efficiently on such a scale is a challenge of its own. The older factories have the downside of being less automated but they realise the need to become more efficient in energy consumption, labour cost and capacity utilisation. In both situations, digital transformation is coming to the rescue. Industry 4.0 is no longer a buzzword, it has become a matter of regional technological sovereignty. 

The fundamental building block of Industry 4.0 is data; an asset which is present in abundance in wafer fabs. So what is preventing these factories from levelling up? The answer is simple, the solution is not: complexity. It’s an inherent part of wafer manufacturing, stemming from; increasingly high numbers of process steps, job shop factory types, re-entrant flows, product diversity, sensitivity to quality issues and so on. 

The problem with complex systems is that there’s so much variability and interaction, it's hard to get actionable insights from data. Instead of accepting the stochastic and complex nature of the fab, factories can better control it by using advanced production scheduling to understand in which order lots get processed, on which tool and – the most important difference when compared with common rules-based approaches – when they get processed. To begin, this can be employed in certain bottleneck areas and then once you do it for the entire factory, you get a holistic picture of what is going to happen. Sounds great, doesn’t it? But how exactly will this benefit your fab? To explain, let’s place production scheduling in a couple of recognisable use cases. 

Fig 1: Roadmap for use cases of optimized scheduling
  1. Lot-Tool Assignments

Wafer manufacturing has complicated recipe-tool qualification matrices within a group of tools that perform similar processes. The weaker tools can process fewer recipes than the stronger ones. We want to avoid stronger tools “stealing” lots away from the weaker tools, because it leaves fewer lots for the weaker tools to process, therefore wasting capacity. The same is true for faster and slower tools: while faster tools are preferred, pushing all the WIP through the faster tools leaves the slower tools under utilised. Advanced schedulers allow for better anticipation of incoming WIP and superior use of available capacity for weak and slow tools. The bigger and more complex the matrix grows, the harder it is to find the optimal processing of WIP. On top of the scheduling itself, mathematical programming helps to optimize lot-to-tool assignments over time. This results in a capacity booster, similar to putting a turbocharger on an engine: it’s the same engine, but with more power.

  1. Reducing Timelink Violations

Process steps with timelinks are common in wafer manufacturing to control the maximum amount of time a wafer spends between two or more process steps. If a timelink is violated, the wafer requires rework – or worse still, scrappage. A system that avoids timelink violations requires the ability to intelligently plan into the future. And that’s exactly what an advanced scheduler does. It has been proven to drastically reduce timelink violations, even in the most complex of scenarios. 

  1. Improving Batching Efficiency 

Batching is a complex decision making process since it involves an estimate of lot arrivals and how waiting longer trades off with running smaller batches. Predicting lot arrivals is difficult in such a complex environment, and trading off wait time against batch efficiency is even harder because the costs and gains are not always clear. Determining and automating this process is well within an advanced scheduler’s remit. Once the algorithm is tuned, it makes the most efficient decision, and perhaps even more importantly: it generates consistent output. 

  1. Optimizing Changeover Decisions 

Another use case related to the problem of lot arrivals is the problem of changeover decisions. One toolset with different machine setups can serve multiple different toolsets down the line. A bit like a waiter in a restaurant serving multiple tables. Waiters have to make sure no table is without food or drink, and to do that, they visit the tables regularly to ask for any orders. But for machines, you can’t switch the setup too often because it only increases non-productive time. Preferably, you also plan setup changeovers at a time when planned or predicted downtime for the machine occurs, to reduce downtime variability. To put it simply, it’s a decision on when to switch over from the type A process to the type B process on a tool. An advanced scheduler can solve that equation, finding the optimal point in time. Schedulers are better at this than human reasoning or rule-based logic, as solving to a time dimension is what they are designed for.

  1. Flow Control and Line Balance

Line balancing is – even for experienced manufacturing engineers – difficult to grasp. One can intuitively understand what it means, but how do you define “balanced” in the first place? Even if you can, it is absolutely beyond the capabilities of a human brain to manually and continuously make decisions that control it. And once it’s out of balance, to recover it. Again, considering the time dimension is a crucial aspect of what advanced schedulers offer, which enables them to recover faster from unforeseen circumstances and maintain better risk-control for generating continuous output.

  1. Operator Task Lists

As opposed to dispatch lists that only tell the order in which to process lots, advanced schedulers can also tell when a lot is supposed to start and finish processing on a tool. Combine that information with which operators are serving which tools, and you can move away from tool-centric dispatch lists towards operator-centric task lists. With a handheld device, that could even allow you to send push notifications when urgent intervention is needed. It can reduce idle time on tools that have no available operator. Even more so, it can allow for an entire rethink of the workflows operators are used to. 

Fig 2: Flexciton’s advanced scheduling interface allows operators to gain a holistic view of the fab.

So far in this blog, we’ve focused on scheduling use cases where lots are scheduled on tools, leading to higher throughput on tools, toolsets or the entire factory. All these use cases can also be addressed by improving some rule-based dispatching strategies, but what advanced scheduling offers is the ability to optimize for future decisions rather than just real-time. With that comes better visibility on what will happen in the factory, and it also leaves opportunities for re-organising workflow and freeing up resources. In part 2 of this blog, we’ll begin to look at the future and what could happen when we integrate even further. Enter, Industry 5.0. 

Author: Ben Van Damme, Industrial Engineer and Business Consultant

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Has the EU Chips Act Failed Before it's Started? Industry Strategy Symposium 2023

The big theme at this year’s SEMI Industry Strategy Symposium (ISS) conference was ‘How does Europe fulfil its ambition by 2030’. Jamie Potter shares his thoughts on the steps being taken to achieve its ambitious goal.

The big theme at this year’s SEMI Industry Strategy Symposium (ISS) conference was ‘How does Europe fulfil its ambition by 2030?’. It involves an ambitious target of reaching a 20% share of the global semiconductor market by 2030 whilst having a more resilient industry ecosystem. This is a huge challenge, especially when one considers that the global semiconductor market is forecasted to reach $1tn by 2030. A 20% share of this would mean $200bn in just seven years. For perspective, the global market figure currently sits at $600bn which means Europe’s present-day 8% share is around $48bn. Breaking it down like this reveals the magnitude of the challenge; Europe must increase its share of the market by more than quadruple as the size of the pie increases along the way. Looking solely at Europe’s rate of growth in the market over recent years compared with the rest of the world, I can tell you that their target is infeasible. But before we conclude, there are several aspects to consider. 

First, what is going to drive this extraordinary growth? Second, why has the EU – and indeed the US which currently claims 10% of global semiconductor manufacture – set these targets? And finally, what is being planned to achieve them. 

  1. Semiconductors are a major driving force in the global economy and the EU clearly recognises this, but perhaps not to the full extent. Almost every modern innovation utilises electronics in some form or another, with the obvious mega trends over the past few years being computers and smartphones. Looking forward, applications that are likely to drive demand further include smart mobility, 5G, AI, IoT, quantum computers, 6G and so on. All of them need increasing amounts of leading-edge chips to handle everything from data capture to cloud processing in order to enable devices and systems to make smarter decisions.

  2. For years we have been enjoying a tightly integrated, global supply chain with wafers and chips crisscrossing the globe as the journey from silicon wafer to packaging to test is done in stages in centres of speciality in different countries.

    Covid and the ongoing geopolitical tensions between the US and China mean that this model is being redefined to be more robust. The ideal solution is to onshore all stages of the manufacturing process, i.e., keeping it all within US borders or within EU countries. Thus, these targets don’t intend to take a larger share of the global manufacturing pie. Instead, they aim to increase the amount of semiconductors manufactured that aren’t sent overseas to provide resilience against disruptions to the supply chain of these devices, which are essentials for a healthy economy. China is already on their way there. They currently make 16% of their chips onshore, with ambitions to increase this to 70% in the future – highlighting massive potential growth in this market.

  3. Semiconductor manufacturing requires wafer fabs. The vast majority of fabs today are in Asia, with big players such as TSMC, Samsung and UMC. The challenge with these ambitious targets is that building a new state-of-the-art fab for today’s advanced nodes takes billions of dollars, requires a skilled labour force and takes several years to build once planning permission is granted. And then there are all other stages of packaging and test facilities to be built from scratch and staffed. The skilled labour needed to manage this doesn’t currently exist in the EU so it’s clear to see how setting up totally onshore manufacturing capabilities will take considerable time, money and expertise. 

Expertise can be fast tracked by partnering with existing fab companies; such as TSMC discussing building new fabs in the US and Germany. But naturally, they require government grants from the funds being created to boost the semiconductor manufacturing industries. It’s worth comparing how much each area is allocating for this. South Korea’s figure is $450bn, the US is $233bn, and China is investing $200bn. With these sizable sums already formally approved by the relevant authorities, fab construction in these nations is already starting. 

The EU, on the other hand, is only planning to invest a comparatively tiny $43bn.

This figure is nowhere near enough to quadruple its current semiconductor manufacturing capabilities. In fact, Kurt Sievers, CEO of NXP, estimated that a more realistic figure to achieve a 20% market share would likely be over $500bn. And moreover, this has not yet been passed in parliament, so the EU is already behind on the timeline to achieve its target compared with the other market players. As for the UK, the figure has not been announced but is rumoured to be around $1bn – which is not enough to fund just one new fab at an advanced node. 

It’s important that SEMI is driving this discussion around the EU Chips Act as government funding is a critical driver for the region's growth within the global semiconductor market. But it’s not enough. As an industry, we need to take stronger action and challenge the decisions being made by the EU and the UK. They require the expertise of industry leaders to understand the full importance of microelectronics for the economy, without it I believe the money they invest will be fruitless. 

As regular readers know, our software can make existing and new build fabs smarter and substantially more productive, but in order to hit the EU’s extraordinarily ambitious targets, more funding and strategic partnerships must be considered. I suspect that one solution will entail a close relationship between the EU and the US to create a US/EU-based supply chain model with both regions working together to share their centres of excellence to create a complete, self-contained system. Even if the ambitious targets are not met, working on de-integrating the supply chain with onshoring will provide security for the electronics that underpin today’s successful economies. 

Author: Jamie Potter, CEO and Co-founder of Flexciton

Photo Credit: SEMI