Winner of the Medal with Yellow Ribbon
Artisanship that supports cutting-edge research through handmade semiconductors
December 3, 2021
During the 2020 Fall Conferment of Decorations, an NEC employee received the Medal with Yellow Ribbon. The Medal with Yellow Ribbon is awarded to those who serve as public role models through their diligence, skill, and accomplishments in fields such as agriculture, commerce, and manufacturing. This marked the second time that an employee received the Medal with Yellow Ribbon in 2020 after it was awarded to Takanori Nishi during the Spring Conferment of Decorations. We spoke with the employee who was honored with this award as a semiconductor chip fabricator and the researcher serving as her supervisor about their thoughts and aspirations.
System Platform Research Laboratories
After joining NEC in 1989, Someya successfully developed a surface tunnel transistor and a miniature analysis chip with a size of several centimeters for DNA protein analysis. Moreover, she has supported countless research and development projects through her advanced knowledge and skills including the realization of combinatorial film deposition and on-chip evaluation device technologies. In 2012, she was the winner of the "Outstanding Skilled Person, Commendation from the Governor of Ibaraki Prefecture" award. Furthermore, she was the winner of "Awards for Outstanding Skilled Workers from the Minister of Health, Labour and Welfare 2018 (Contemporary Master Craftsman)". After being recognized for excellence in "semiconductor chip fabrication and artistry," she received the Medal with Yellow Ribbon in the fall of 2020.
System Platform Research Laboratories
Making adjustments of 1/1000 of a millimeter by eye and hand
― Congratulations on receiving the Medal with Yellow Ribbon. Please tell us how you feel.
Someya: I am absolutely surprised. Due to the impact of COVID-19, the award ceremony at the Imperial Palace was postponed, but even now it does not seem real. I really wonder if they meant to give me such an award.
― You were awarded this medal in recognition of your skills in semiconductor chip manufacturing.
Someya: Yes, that is true. Since graduating from a course in science at junior college and joining the company in 1989, I have been involved in semiconductor manufacturing for my entire career. Just as I was graduating, the NEC Tsukuba Research Laboratories were established in my home prefecture of Ibaraki. I joined the company thinking that I could commute by car without having to ride on a commuter train, which was the beginning of my involvement in semiconductors (laughs). I have enjoyed working with machinery since I was a child and did things like take apart an alarm clock with a screwdriver and then reassemble it.
After joining the company, I was involved in the manufacture of a semiconductor chip called a "surface tunnel transistor" which is used in high-speed computers. Later, as the research themes changed, I produced various kinds of semiconductors. I have also had the experience of making a chip used in protein and DNA analysis in the bio field. I recall that many things which were okay in the semiconductor world were not allowed in the bio world, which made things very challenging. In addition, I am currently making a chip for carrying out materials informatics, which uses quantum computers and AI to discover materials.
The chips that I make are not mass-produced products but chips that are used for research. I perform prototyping in which roughly 100 prototypes are iteratively created before finally finding one or two that work properly. Therefore, it is important to engage in trial and error under various conditions. When engaging in that process with machinery, it becomes extremely difficult to set conditions. This is because each machinery has its own specific feature that cannot be controlled according to each piece of equipment. Performing the work by human hand enables you to set conditions in a detailed and highly precise manner. Finally, you perform the "visual alignment" work and make minor adjustments by hand while looking through a microscope.
Kirihara: Semiconductors have an extremely microscopic structure. Because it has a pattern, it is designed in an extremely detailed manner to specify that this material goes here and this other material goes there. It is a world in which an error of even 1/1000 of a millimeter is not allowed, so it requires extremely delicate work. Even when there was not much of an established process during the research stage, Ms. Someya developed most of that process on her own.
Creating more value than what was ordered
― Ms. Someya, what do you keep in mind when it comes to work?
Someya: I value "reproducibility" as being very important. For example, when conditions are changed during prototyping, you have to be able to clarify what was introduced that changed the results. I strive to understand the conditions that lead to the same result each time. Naturally, I keep a lab notebook so that I can always understand what was changed and under what conditions. In addition, I also "ask someone if I do not know something." If you continue working while not understanding something, then you will definitely fail, so I ask someone who knows at the point when I do not understand. Asking someone for help is not shameful, because I am asking someone to deepen my knowledge.
Kirihara: Someya's notes are truly well-organized. In addition, I think that her efforts to carefully plan out the process and complete the work according to the schedule are amazing.
Someya: Thank you (laughs). I also strive to over deliver to the researcher who submitted the order. I try to anticipate what the researcher intends to do with what I have created. I don't just create the chip that was requested. For example, I speculate that the researcher wants to use the chip that I created to take a measurement, and I perform the measurement in advance and report the results. I am always thinking about ways to reduce the burden on the researchers by even a little bit.
Kirihara: She is truly always helping us out. Although researchers such as ourselves come up with various ideas, we are not so good at realizing them by manufacturing. However, if you consult with Someya, she will derive a way to realize your idea based on her manufacturing experience. In addition, she also knows the content of our research, so the work proceeds very smoothly. That is not the case when working with external staff. Currently, there are many internal teams that rely on Someya's abilities, and she is in great demand.
Continuing to enjoy manufacturing into the future
― Do you have any additional goals going forward?
Someya: It could be the quantum computer or the materials informatics that I am currently involved with, but it would be great if something that I made was announced to the world in some fashion. So perhaps the quantum computer that I am involved in might be completed or a material that was discovered through material exploration might prove useful to society in some way. I have been making chips for research for many years, so they have never been productized or broadly adopted by the world. For that very reason, I hope that I can make some visible impact on the world in a way that is easy to understand. This is my current dream.
In addition, I would also like to train the next generation. In particular, I would like to have the younger people follow after me regarding how to use the clean room.
Kirihara: When it comes to researchers, most of them never used a clean room when they were students. So they do not know how to use it. I was also one of those people, so I learned how to use it from Someya. Someya carefully adjusts her explanation according to the other person's level, and she is very good at teaching. Because of that, she has endeared herself to the younger people.
In addition, there are also various legends regarding Someya (laughs) such as coming to work carrying skis on her back.
Someya: That was in my younger days (laughs). I was going to go skiing with the company ski club over the weekend and was told that I should wax my skis. So I brought my skis to work and waxed them in the open area during my lunch break. In the past, the laboratory was a very free environment and I myself had a lot of freedom, so sometimes I would come to work in short sleeves and shorts wearing "geta" (traditional Japanese clogs). Even now, I take a playful approach to my hairstyle and leave it up to my favorite beautician. Currently, I am maintaining a more subdued look in preparation for the award ceremony at the Imperial Palace, but I am thinking of changing it once that is done.
Of course, you have to enjoy whatever you do. I also truly enjoy my work. It is fun to learn how to use a new piece of equipment, and it is also fun to repair it when it breaks down. I hope to continue manufacturing things while enjoying my work and become able to communicate that sense of enjoyment and importance to others.