MyLam
Samantha Tan's Visionary Approach to Semiconductor Innovation
Jun 21, 2024
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  • Explore key factors that drive grand discoveries at Lam, as revealed by a top innovator  
  • Samantha Tan's visionary approach balances high-risk research with profitable outcomes 

Samantha Tan, Lam Fellow and Leap reviewer, and her team have a hefty mission: solve the unsolvable problems in the semiconductor industry. With more than 30 years of experience, Samantha now identifies and develops disruptive solutions that address our customers’ grand challenges.  

Her team looks to discover never-tried processes, focusing on high-risk approaches that net high returns. An example of a recent innovative technology from the team’s work is dry resist technology, which extends extreme ultraviolet light (EUV) lithography’s resolution, productivity, and yield.  

We asked Samantha to share the factors needed for grand discoveries. She came up with five: belief, vision, profitability, teammates, and support. 

In Samantha's words... 

 

Powerful Belief 

Even when the path forward is unclear, innovators need a powerful belief that solutions exist. This requires faith and confidence, even in the face of the unknown. It is about trusting the fundamentals, and your ability to innovate. 

For example, when working on dry resist technology our team did not get far the first one or two years, with perseverance over the next two years, we delivered unique, out-of-the-box solutions that contributed to Lam’s growth. Today, we have a record of accomplishment we can stand on. Our past successes fuel our belief, and the challenges we take on continue to get grander. 

  

Anticipatory Vision 

Unlike my team, product group innovation teams tackle problems on a different schedule: The product group stays focused on the "next nodes," meaning solutions for customer needs within one to three years. They are like firefighters, putting out immediate fires by addressing customer challenges in high volume manufacturing. 

Our team takes a more futuristic approach. We are explorers, venturing five to seven years out, searching for solutions to problems that do not yet exist. We anticipate challenges our current offerings cannot handle, delving into uncharted territory: unproven chemistry, unpublished research, and entirely new concepts. 

This longer-term approach comes with its own set of challenges. There is a high degree of uncertainty—the solution might take years to discover, and the path forward may require entirely new hardware. It can be uncomfortable for folks who crave concrete milestones and near-term wins. They might feel lost in the vast unknown, questioning the direction and purpose of their work. 

  

Profitable Endpoint 

Business viability is a key factor in selecting research projects. While exploration is essential, success hinges on turning discoveries into practical applications. Can our innovations be turned into something practical which will help our customers solve problems? A truly successful project delivers both disruptive technology and business to the company - we do not innovate for the sake of publishing patents and publishing in journals. 

My team understands that it may take years and we require innovative ideas, disruptive process/hardware development, and joint development with customers to prove values. This is why perseverance is crucial. We do not abandon the work after encountering initial difficulties. We need team members committed to seeing projects through to a profitable endpoint. 

  

Right Teammates 

The success of long-term pathfinding projects hinges on building the right team, representing the necessary qualities and experience. Upfront discussions about project timelines and the nature of the work are critical, as they help identify individuals who possess the right skill-sets, interest, and commitment required for visionary, groundbreaking research. Significant projects sometime take months/years to reach fruition, so we need seasoned researchers willing to see things through. 

In addition, a high tolerance for failure and a positive attitude to learn from these failures is important, as most initial attempts do not lead to breakthroughs. Team members who struggle with this and seek quick wins, may not be a good fit; not everyone thrives in an environment dominated by uncertainty. 

We are fortunate our success has attracted like-minded individuals within the company who understand the long-term vision and are eager to contribute. Now, people reach out and say, "I see your team’s work. I really want to be in that area." 

  

Unwavering Support 

In the face of uncertain results, fostering a culture of support is crucial for long-term innovation. On projects like ours, 80% of the effort we put in takes place during the last mile. Leaders need to exude confidence and commitment, even when faced with setbacks. The minute one of our leaders says, "this is not going to work," everybody gets demotivated.  

Unwavering belief in the team and the problem's solvability motivates and inspires the team to push through challenges. A team fueled by both internal and external support is better equipped to navigate the hurdles inherent in the innovation process. 

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Caution Regarding Forward-Looking Statements  
Statements made in this article that are not of historical fact are forward-looking statements and are subject to the safe harbor provisions of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995. Such forward-looking statements relate to, but are not limited to: the impact and success of our products, the potential benefits of our products, profitable research outcomes, and increased profitability and long-term growth. Some factors that may affect these forward-looking statements include: trade regulations, export controls, trade disputes, and other geopolitical tensions may inhibit our ability to sell our products; business, political and/or regulatory conditions in the consumer electronics industry, the semiconductor industry and the overall economy may deteriorate or change; the actions of our customers and competitors may be inconsistent with our expectations; supply chain cost increases and other inflationary pressures have impacted and may continue to impact our profitability; supply chain disruptions or manufacturing capacity constraints may limit our ability to manufacture and sell our products; and natural and human-caused disasters, disease outbreaks, war, terrorism, political or governmental unrest or instability, or other events beyond our control may impact our operations and revenue in affected areas; as well as the other risks and uncertainties that are described in the documents filed or furnished by us with the Securities and Exchange Commission, including specifically the Risk Factors described in our annual report on Form 10-K for the fiscal year ended June 25, 2023 and our quarterly report on Form 10-Q for the fiscal quarter ended March 31, 2024. These uncertainties and changes could materially affect the forward-looking statements and cause actual results to vary from expectations in a material way. The Company undertakes no obligation to update the information or statements made in this article.   

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