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30 Apr
Overwhelmed with Design Tasks? Relax, Slice, Dice and take one piece at a time.
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It was quite intimidating the first time. Before me stood a garbled collection of what looked like electro-mechanical equipment that would, theoretically, perform a specific function as outlined by my client and customer. Behind me I hear what starts as a distant murmur slowly morphing into the customer talking to me about the machination and its eventual function.

As I came out of my stupor and responded to the customer, I realized then what it means to be overwhelmed with spoken information and inundated with visual information simultaneously. Such it is anytime I am approached with a design & engineering challenge from a customer, of a machine, designed many years ago by a full team of engineers, with each part integrated and integral to the other. The whole time I am looking at this, I am thinking how exactly I am going to improve on something it took a full team to design and construct.

Flashback to 2005. It was summer, and I met my customer. A Ph.D. in physics, I had gone to his laboratory. There was something he needed, outside of his scope and experience, that was necessary for us to design, engineer and assist in implementation. I had rudimentary understandings of silicon wafers and their purpose. What I did not know was the background processes of that wafer into its place on a chip.

As I stared at what were two versions of the same machine, an idea struck me. The customer had a small hand loading version, plus a larger machine from another manufacturer. What was needed was simple – study both and combine the two machines built from scratch and to make sense of the entire process.

Google and I became very friendly that night. I was typing in new words as quickly as I could recall them. Honestly, the entire time I was on this project I was using Google for more than this project: It was also for the new technologies and keeping up to speed with my client. I had to stay a step ahead as best I could. English is, after all, not my native language.


Like many projects, this stalled a bit until November 2005. The machine we were entrusted with was to chemically etch and thin a wafer of silicon. This required a robot, already manufactured to this task, to transfer the wafers to the back for the final processing. This back end had several modules, and each module had its own specific task: chemical storing and mixing assembly, electrical and pneumatic control box, wafer processing area and wafer handling chuck and bridge assembly.

It was "The Project".

I had a deadline. "The Project" was to be running, correctly, by the end of the 2006 summer. Ten months to design, engineer, electrical engineer, fabricate all parts, assemble, design the software, integrate the front-end robot, test and install on site. There is customer service, and then there is CUSTOMER SERVICE. Guess which one we are?

Since the entire project had parts dependent upon one another, I had to break each component piece down to learn the specific functions. Each part of "The Project" had its own project in essence.

Did I mention this was overwhelming? Remember: This is not designing and engineering an existing machine, this is starting from scratch and using old machines and technology as a reference only.

I approached this the same way a mechanic looks at a car. Each section of a car has its own parts and duties. "The Project" was no different. I worked on one part at a time and left the remainder in the background like a softly playing radio.

I was fully vested in this by now. My customer is fully vested in me, and the company's name and reputation is on the line over this one project. We feared the worst: Our promise of delivery would fail, and this would lead to a chain reaction of disappointments that would culminate in the customer severing all ties to us.

Finally, the machine was divided into three parts, with each part further subdivided into manageable parts. The front end and first part was for the user interface. The middle and second part was the area and workspace for the robot. The last part was the processing section of the wafer.

Naturally, the first two sections were fairly simple as the robot was off the shelf and out of the box. The third section had to be further divided into component parts: wafer transporting section, chemical storage section, chemical mixing section and electrical section.

Computer programmers and software engineers worked on the front section and overall control. I, along with a mechanical engineer did the design and overall machine engineering. Rounding out the team was an electrical engineer taking care of the back end processing section controllers and electrical box.


Ultimately, "The Project" was a success, delivered on-time with great fanfare and praises. This proved to us there is no project we cannot design or overcome for a customer.

The secret to the project was to treat each part as a complete unit to itself. Solve one part, and then the rest of the project falls naturally into place.