A global shortage of computer chips is disrupting the production of goods ranging from household appliances to automobiles. It may take a year or more for demand to fully catch up, but the semiconductor industry is already responding by increasing its manufacturing capacity. As part of this effort, the Phoenix metro area is an emerging location for new manufacturing plants, or “fabs.”
Intel recently announced the construction of two additional factories on its campus in the city of Chandler, Arizona, adding 3,000 new jobs when they open in 2024. Simultaneously, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company began construction of a factory in the north. of Phoenix, which will create up to 1,900 new jobs when it opens the same year as the new Intel facilities. In the meantime, Samsung Electronics is still deciding whether or not to open a factory employing 1,800 people at one of two potential sites around Phoenix.
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These industry giants are drawn to Arizona for several reasons, but key to their plans is the pipeline of technical talent emerging from Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. Despite this, the semiconductor industry is growing rapidly and equipping new engineers to succeed in such a dynamic environment is a challenge for any educational institution.
Meeting this challenge is the goal of a new semiconductor processing certificate program at Fulton Schools. Launched during the fall 2020 academic term, the 15-credit college-level course framework provides professional training in multiple aspects of chip production.
“We are not saying that our certified students will become experts in photolithography or chemical vapor deposition,” said Terry Alford, professor of materials science and engineering as well as associate director of the School for Engineering of Matter, Transportation. and Energy, one of the six Fulton schools. “But they will understand the terminology and fundamentals of the semiconductor manufacturing process at a level that will allow them to immediately engage with colleagues in a factory and do a good job. “
Alford started organizing the certificate program two years ago and created the framework in collaboration with Michael Kozicki and Trevor Thornton, both professors of electrical engineering at Fulton Schools. The three fellow professors have direct business experience in the semiconductor industry, and these relationships have played a crucial role in the development of the program.
“Over two dozen of my doctoral students and 60 or 70 of my master’s students work in the semiconductor industry,” Alford said, noting that Kozicki and Thornton have similar professional networks. “These people include the hiring managers at Intel, for example, and we were directly inspired by what they told us we needed when we designed the content for this certificate. “
At the heart of the program are three core courses: Advanced Silicon Processing, an electrical engineering course; Design Engineering Experiments, an industrial engineering course; and Advanced Materials Characterization, a materials science and engineering course. Alford says this combination provides the foundation on which students build their practical understanding of semiconductor manufacturing work.
Beyond the core courses, all certificate program students choose two elective courses from 11 options. This allows them to make the most of their current knowledge and to support the development of areas in which they want or need additional depth.
“People can personalize this certificate experience based on their future goals,” Alford said. “If someone has an electrical engineering background, they already know about semiconductor devices. So, they may want to take an optional course in Industrial Engineering in Statistical Analysis to learn more about improving performance. Alternatively, they can take an elective course to better understand cleanroom operations.
The adaptability of the program extends to its delivery format. Access to expensive equipment, clean rooms, and other physical aspects of the semiconductor manufacturing process may seem mandatory, but vast innovation in curricula during the pandemic now means all courses can be taken on campus or online.
The new certificate is open to current Fulton Schools graduate students as well as undergraduates participating in the 4 + 1 Accelerated Bachelor and Masters Program. But Alford says the platform also serves as an invitation to current professionals in the tech industry who may be considering returning to college. He adds that the same goes for students who have obtained an undergraduate degree in chemistry or physics and now want to improve their market value.
“If someone applies for this new certificate program, they can also apply, for example, to the online masters program in materials science and engineering. And they can do both for one application fee, ”Alford said. “Then when they have completed their certificate, they can opt out, if they wish. They don’t commit to anything else. But we expect certificate courses to encourage people to continue their education and apply those same credits to earn their graduate engineering degree.
Alford emphasizes that the value of this certificate is not limited to chip manufacturing. He says the program also addresses the needs of manufacturing equipment – from airplanes to air conditioners – in which semiconductors are central to production.
“These companies need good process engineers at their sites,” he said. “These are the people who communicate with factories to ensure successful technology transfer, and many costly decisions are based on this type of expertise. Thus, the application of the new certificate goes quite far.