EELife: Nordic Semiconductor Principal R&D Engineer Winthur Marabe

Article By : Stephen Las Marias

At Nordic Semiconductor, outside-of-the-box thinking is encouraged, and ample support and opportunity are provided to ensure a novel idea is allowed to germinate.

Winthur Marabe is a Principal R&D Engineer and R&D – Supply Chain (SC) Liaison Engineer at Nordic Semiconductor. He is based in the company’s headquarters in Trondheim, Norway.

Winthur used to be a Test Developer at Nordic’s satellite office in the Philippines. He moved to Malaysia for a while but was offered a chance to work in Norway as an R&D – Supply Chain (SC) liaison under the Test and Verification Team. He grabbed the opportunity—also to experience “four seasons”—and he moved there with his family in the summer of 2013.

Daily grind

Wearing many hats, Winthur’s day-to-day work is quite varied. “One of my main tasks is streamlining processes between R&D and SC such that test solutions, both hardware and software, are efficiently done,” he explains. “Almost invariably, the answer to most of that is automation. So, for a big part of the work week, this is what I dabble into with my thinking cap on.”

Because automation requires machines, he also handles the Automated Test Equipment (ATE) Lab operations such that day-to-day activities between multiple project streams go smoothly. “It gives a certain feeling of euphoria to see how far we have grown the Trondheim lab to what it is today, offering services from characterization to early manufacturing,” Winthur says.

Job satisfaction

“What I like most about the job is the job itself,” says Winthur. “At Nordic Semiconductor, outside-of-the-box thinking is encouraged. Ample support and opportunity are provided to ensure a novel idea is allowed to germinate. Over the years, we have turned multiple ideas to fruition. Currently, our group is heavily invested in a massive cross-functional automation project spanning design to manufacturing, creating our own proprietary xml and their corresponding interpreters. We are targeting a spec-driven development with the goal of making our processes and solutions product-centric. An out-of-the-box solution for designers, test engineers, and developers alike.”

Another factor he likes about his work is its multicultural setting. “We come in varied backgrounds, cultures, and ethnicities that coffee time guarantees a unique perspective on any topic under the sun,” he says. “Some serious, but mostly good fun. I’ve come to a certain conclusion that while each engineer is unique, everyone has a propensity for solving a problem while having the pleasure of dissecting it.”

On top of that, personal time is respected. “If you want to take time off, which is 25 days for the year, no one calls you,” says Winthur. “In my first few years here, I was always close to my phone even on vacation. I was edgy when it rang as it could be that I haven’t properly endorsed. Little by little, I have acclimatized and learned to enjoy my off time. In relation to where we are, anything north of 15°C with good sun is a reason to celebrate. So, we would normally take out some leave or flexi-time when that happens.”

But it is not always rainbows and butterflies, he said. For one, there are the usual disagreements on how best to attack a problem because of their differing backgrounds. Also, he says engineering freedom—which he defines as degrees of leniency wherein an engineer is allowed to create any solution as he deems fit to solve an issue—is a bit hampered.

“I value that freedom a lot. However, contrarian arguments are sound as we do need proper processes and documentation to cater an expanding team. Still, it is an eternal struggle to find the balance such that bureaucracy does not take away time to innovate,” he explains.

 Challenges, of course, exist

Most of the challenges is figuring out the best solution from a plethora of good ones, according to Winthur.

“My pet peeve is often about whether we take a resource-straining flexible route or push-all-your-chips-to-the-table single solution route. In engineering, trade-offs are an existential conundrum, whether it be yield versus test time, accuracy versus precision, or test scope versus reject ppm,” he explains. “In theory, they have numbers, and thus, objectives. But if you factor even the latest wafer shortage issue, yield now takes center stage. Before, it was all about manufacturing capacity, and we would have considered putting a premium on test time and just buy more wafers/testers to meet demand.”

Another challenge, says Winthur, is convincing people to break from old norms. “We tend to be comfortable with what works and just make it more efficient. But existing systems have a peak wherein gains versus effort becomes too insignificant. The trick is figuring out when it is time to break it and make a new system to meet exponentially increasing demands,” he says.

Tips and tricks

There are tons of literature about manufacturing tips and tricks on the web. But for Winthur, it is all about timing and flexibility.

“I guess, most of us would go on these stages. Early in my career, I was the idealistic engineer who will not release an imperfect solution,” he says. “The propensity to over-engineer is real. Over time, I have deviated to release when it is good enough to meet defined criteria. This comes after realizing that solutions, while perfect to you, may not be so under the scrutiny of your peers, nor will it stand ever-evolving customer requirements. Time-to-market is normally very high in the priority list for any company. So, do not be afraid to release. When you are not in a time crunch, focus on devising a robust and agile system.”

He adds that errors are a necessary evil, “a consequence for doing something avant-garde.” Because of this, one has to learn how to play the margins.

“There is a reason why we sometimes define innovative technology as cutting edge,” Winthur notes.

Meanwhile, when in doubt, he says one should keep a dumb-down approach. “Put forward your best idea. If it fails, take the hit, send your next best idea. If all avenues have been exhausted, take a breather, and go back to the drawing board. Remember, critical thinking is not exclusive to you. It is always nice to bounce off ideas to another colleague. As is often the case, just hearing yourself talk would make you realize the solution was right there all along,” Winthur explains.

Pandemic and travel

During the pandemic, Winthur was part of the skeleton crew manning their lab. “It was strange to see a bustling 400-strong building shrink down to a minuscule 10 or so people. However, our propensity to automate helped us in this regard. We were more prepared than most companies. I guess the only problem was the mad rush to buy laptops and extra monitors as suddenly every company had the same bright idea,” he says. “At least it wasn’t tissue paper.”

Winthur and his family love to travel—making it a point to travel once a year. “We normally alternate our plans between going back to the Philippines and a place we have not been before,” he says. Because travel had been difficult during the Covid-19 pandemic, they decided to drive around scenic Norway. Which still takes his breath away, according to Winthur.

Engineer by heart

Winthur had always wanted to become an engineer—albeit in a different field. “I also considered medicine and law until I realized that both would take way too long to finish,” he says. “In any case, I have always been drawn to math and science. As a kid, to be a rocket scientist was the dream. I read everything I can about fuel-based propulsion on the encyclopedia back in elementary. There was no Google search at that time!”

Over time, Winthur grew more and more interested in technology, so he decided electronics and programming were the way to go. And the rest is history.

Advice to engineering students

Winthur says engineering, though governed by scientific principles, is a creative problem-solving endeavor.

“Schools normally teach strict adherence to conventions, but real-world engineering does not. What matters is how well you can defend your conclusions with data,” he says. “Learn to keep an open mind. Remember that trial and error is still the most fundamental form of science.”

“Over the years, I have learned that the definition of success is personal by nature. Still, to the successful people that meet my criteria, they are not defined by a particular set of talent or skill, but rather, grit. An innate stubbornness to let an idea, regardless of sense but backed by engineering evidence, out in the open. If it dies, it dies. If it lives, buy some good whiskey,” Winthur says. “So, value your interest and passion, as they will almost invariably drive innovation regardless of field. When backed against the wall, think like a child—a grown-up sees a rubber slipper, a kid sees a boat. And I guess this goes without saying, have fun out there.”

 

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