Semiconductor manufacturing is a capital-intensive industry requiring substantial investment in state-of-the-art facilities as well as the expert input of highly technical professionals. Integrated circuit (IC) engineers, who play a key role in a company's R&D team, must be all-round professionals specialising in all aspects of IC development. Also they must have a passion for their work plus an inventive nature combined with an artistic flair.
"Broadly, there are three main aspects to IC development," says Isaac Ko, IC design manager, Hong Kong Design Centre, Supertex Limited. These comprise technology, device and circuit design.
Today, Supertex has a mounting demand for circuit design engineers in Hong Kong. They must be familiar with every aspect of IC development covering everything from technology to lab evaluation and troubleshooting. "They must interface with application engineers, who work closely with customers, in defining and verifying product specification and architecture," Mr Ko says. "They must also team up with other design and layout engineers to manage a project and review a design, while supporting other groups in order to finish the design in time and have it ready for production."
Established in 1976, Supertex is a mixed-signal semiconductor manufacturer focusing on high-voltage analog. Its R&D arm in Hong Kong was set up six years ago to drive the development of new products. The company's US headquarters focuses on the development of process technologies as well as some standard products.
Unlike IC design engineers who are in charge of circuit development and have the ownership of the products they are responsible for, computer-aided design (CAD) engineers play a supportive role by helping all project teams in simulation and layout verification. "This simulation process is essential for IC design," says Mr Ko. "It can verify and help improve the design before it is confirmed for production, after which it is too late and too costly to make drastic amendments."
CAD engineers are expected to work closely with process, device as well as circuit design engineers to perform extensive testing, debugging and enhancing mixed-signal design platforms. They must also develop and maintain the design flow and environment, and communicate with vendors on software feature improvement and bug fixes.
Since the roles and requirements of IC designers and CAD engineers are different, Supertex does not encourage staff to move from one position to the other. Company policy requires an engineer to stay in a position for at least one year before requesting job rotation.
Despite this, it is not uncommon for a CAD engineer to make the switch to IC design. "There is an impression that the status of CAD engineers is lower, as they play a supportive role and do not own a product," says Mr Ko. "But actually one is as important as the other. We do encourage innovation among CAD engineers who are expected to keep their co-workers updated with any CAD changes and the use of the latest tools."
For long-term development, a CAD engineer may become a CAD manager heading a small team of three to four members. But the scale for IC design is much larger. For example, Mr Ko is in charge of all projects of the R&D team that now comprises more than 10 IC design engineers.
Qualifications Supertex requires for an IC design engineer are at least an electronic engineering degree. For a CAD engineer, only a general engineering degree is necessary, and fresh graduates will be considered.
Furthermore, IC designers and CAD engineers are expected to have different motivations. "IC design engineers must have a passion for their work plus the artistic sense for invention, while CAD engineers should be team players who are helpful and patient enough to serve and communicate with their internal and external customers," says Mr Ko.
Supertex now offers three types of training to its engineers. External training includes seminars, conferences and courses that are provided to individual employees on a need basis. Self-study is also encouraged so they can broaden their knowledge by reading relevant books, journals, magazines and reports. On-the-job training is also given in particular for transfer of specific skills and quality control.
Mr Ko believes there is an increasing demand for engineers as more semiconductor companies enter the business, including local players, who are likely fabless companies focusing mainly on R&D, and overseas companies branching out here.