Morven Duffy talks to Smart Futures about making computer chips for Intel Ireland, where she has worked for 15 years.
What is a process engineer and what do you do?
Intel has a few hundred process engineers in Leixlip. Each one has responsibility for a number of process steps. We start with a silicon wafer and build a load of integrated circuits into it . My area is called metals. I work with complicated machines and ensure they operate consistently and at a reasonable cost.
What are the wafers for and what size are they?
We build hundreds of chips on to a silicon wafer that is 30cm across. We’re starting a new process using Intel’s newest technology called Broadwell. We use a measurement called the gate length, which is the basic measure of how small a chip can be manufactured. The new gate length is 14 nanometers (nm) – a human hair is around 75,000nm in diameter – they are the most advanced in the world.
What are the main challenges?
Some of the layers we use to build chips are so thin that the material doesn’t behave as expected so that is difficult. Keeping the yields up (how many good chips we get off a wafer) is very complicated as there’s a lot of reasons why it might not work. Another challenge is the travel. Intel releases a new product every two to three years. They are developed in Oregon in the US and transferred to Ireland. When we are doing a process transfer, we have to live abroad. In the last three years, I’ve spent nine months in Oregon and just over a year in Israel.
I get to play with really expensive machines.
What subjects did you take in school?
I picked physics, chemistry, biology, applied maths and German. When I was choosing my college course, I decided to go with the subject I liked best – physics.
What did you do after school?
I did applied physics in Dublin City University in 1995. I had to do a six-month work placement, which I did in Intel. Intel hired a bunch of us when we finished college.
What kind of work experience would provide a good background for this position?
Anyone interested in this role should get experience in a manufacturing-type job.
What inspires your love of engineering?
My family has always been quite technical. We were very familiar with computers and had a laptop at home in 1990. That background has definitely fed through.