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Alumni Profiles - Steve Swan

Managing technology quality

Job title and responsibilities
I am Site Engineering Manager for Quality at National Semiconductor, South Portland, Maine. National Semiconductor’s plant in South Portland specializes in complex analog computer chips using CMOS (complementary metal oxide semiconductor), bipolar, and power technologies.  The products cover thousands of applications across markets such as smart phones, wireless communication, LED lighting, and industrial applications.  Each month, more than 100 million chips comprising 20 different technologies are shipped from our plant.

National Semiconductor is a leader in power management technology. Known for its easy-to-use analog integrated circuits and world-class supply chain, National’s high-performance analog products enable its customers’ systems to be more energy efficient. We have facilities around the world, and our headquarters is in Silicon Valley, in Santa Clara, Calif. Our sales last fiscal year were just over $1.4 billion.

Products made in Maine are shipped to Malaysia for assembly, and then sold to customers such as Apple, Cisco, Ford, Motorola, Nokia, and Seagate.

The concept of “analog” chips refers to a distinction within the semiconductor industry that there are two types of products. Analog chips are those that make a human interface more enjoyable.  These typically control functions on an electronic device such as sound, light, or temperature. Analog chips act as the interface between a person and an electronic device. The other category of chips is “digital,” where the interface is between the digital chips and other chips inside the electronic device.  Most people are familiar with memory chip and microprocessors, which are examples of digital chips. National makes neither of these. I would encourage anyone who wants to learn more about our company to visit our web site at

Where did you grow up?
I spent my childhood in Brewer, Maine

Where’s home now?
I live outside of Portland in Windham, Maine

Years at UMaine and degrees?
I received a B.S. in electrical engineering in 1982.  I also have an MBA from the University of Phoenix.

Milestones in your professional career after graduating from UMaine?
After graduation, I started as an Equipment Engineer at Fairchild Semiconductor in South Portland, then went into process engineering before moving to Digital Equipment Corp. (now an Intel plant) in Massachusetts.  At Digital, I worked on the Alpha microprocessor which in 1990 was one of the most advanced processes in the world. At that time, it felt like I was in grad school, working on new process techniques with some of the best people in the field. It was a particularly exciting time in the industry, as well as for me as a young engineer.

In 1993, I joined National Semiconductor here in South Portland as an Engineering Manager on the team that started up this facility. This is classified as a 200 mm fab, which, at the time, was cutting edge – the coolest technology around. This chip factory represented the next generation of growth for National. Again, I was fortunate to be at the center of the latest technology. The South Portland plant was the single biggest capital investment in Maine to that point, and has since grown to more than $1 billion worth of manufacturing investment. During my career at National Semiconductor, I’ve worked in Engineering Management with responsibility across the operations, product, and quality groups.

My current responsibility is to ensure that every chip we produce meets customers’ expectations for quality and performance. We strive for a theoretical benchmark of zero defects, so that means the pressure’s always on. Keep in mind that we ship more than 100 million chips a month, so as you might guess, that means we can’t inspect each one. Instead, like the rest of the industry, we rely on process control techniques and electrical test data to validate our products.

One of my key roles is to work with customers – both before and after the sale – to make sure that our manufacturing performance meets their needs.   Since our business constantly changes, these engagements can cover a wide range of topics, including quality, technology, and capacity.

Tell us about your UMaine experience.
Like many students, I paid for my own school. For me, that meant working in my father’s beekeeping business, Swan’s Honey. (I’ll spare you the puns that involve the words sweet, sticky and buzz – but believe me, in that business, you hear them all.)

Anyway, the people I was going to school with were very team-oriented. I was not the top scholar in the group but I wasn’t afraid to ask for help – a trait that served me well. At the time, faculty members were very practical-minded, so even the theoretical courses were brought back to why it matters. That approach really worked well given my learning style.

Tell us about your work in process engineering and the biggest challenges in that field today.
First, keep in mind that this is a global business. That means we face constant pressures from external events – things we have no control over. The recent disasters in Japan are a good example; we’re still working out what that means to the industry. The implications for our customers are all over the place. And so those global interrelationships and interdependencies are the backdrop to all that we do.

As the industry and marketplace have evolved, our customers increasingly look at things from a just-in-time philosophy. They don’t want a lot of inventory on their shelves. They want it to show up and work, eliminating any surprises that could disrupt customer delivery. It’s not only about cost, it’s about quality as well. There’s so much competition — pressure to come out with the next big product — particularly in the cell phone market. Some of our chips are in new products that can disappear in eight to 10 months. That’s why there’s a lot of pressure to get it right the first time. Think about the big, secretive product launches that Apple is famous for. If you’re an Apple supplier, that means lining up all the chips so that with the announcement, they’re ready to go with 10 million units.

National Semiconductor is very good at managing complex processes with delivery and performance. One of the unique things about my job is I’ve been to other fabs across the world, including Taiwan, China, Malaysia, Korea and in Europe. Wherever I go, I’m developing partnerships with people who can help us. And I’m also benchmarking. As a globally competitive factory in Maine, we need to understand how we stack up. It would be easy to become insular, which is why we need to remain aware of what’s going on in the rest of the world.

Is it important to you that you’re working in your home state?
It’s an engineers dream to work in a high-tech, well-paying profession and live where you want to live. We’ve got such a great facility in Maine. People think they have to work in Asia to be competitive in this business and it’s just not true. Thanks largely to the quality of life our employees enjoy in Maine, we have a very stable workforce. Beyond that, our engineering staff can compete with any group in the world.

From your perspective, what’s the next big thing in engineering?
The next big thing in the semiconductor industry will be tied to new technology.  Our chips work across a range of frequencies and voltages and we are constantly working to anticipate the next thing. Some new trends that we are seeing are high voltage chargers for electric cars, current drivers for LED light bulbs, and high speed chips for wireless technologies. It’s impossible to say for sure what will be the next killer technology, but it could very well be something no one’s thought of yet.

What might be the biggest challenge is what we can’t quite see?
Exactly. Think about where the PC industry was 15 or 20 years ago. In the early 1990s, smart phone and iPads weren’t on our radar. Now they’re emerging as the device of choice for accessing information in what some are now calling the post-PC age. So if you want to look out 10 years from now, who’s to say where the marketplace and technology will take us. I can tell you that it’s exciting to be part of it, though.

Fortunately, the engineering techniques around process control statistics don’t change much. Once we get a group of engineers trained in how to produce chips, the technology may change, but the same techniques are used. The three big metrics are the same at all semiconductor fabs — quality, cost and delivery. They’re what people care about. No matter where you go in the world, those are the constants.

Why did you choose electrical engineering?
As a high school kid, I didn’t know what field to go into. So I talked to teachers and counselors, and they told me I’d make a good engineer. At UMaine, I asked which was the toughest discipline, and that’s the one I chose. I figured if I couldn’t hack it, I could always step back. I also figured my peers would be the best and the brightest. We had brilliant people in my class — 28 students — and all did very well.

Why UMaine?
I had a good experience living so close to UMaine, going to Boys State and basketball games. And it was affordable.

What kinds of research were you involved in as a UMaine student?
Internships and co-ops — two at BIW and one at Fairchild.  Those experiences were invaluable in preparing me for the real world.  They gave me some contacts in the industry and helped me prioritize what I wanted to do in my career.

When you were at UMaine, what was your favorite place on campus?
The Bear’s Den. How’s that for unoriginal? Plus, as a honey producer, I was naturally drawn to it!

Most memorable UMaine moments?
As a FIJI (Phi Gamma Delta) brother – and the record of details on that have been sealed forever. Seriously, though, the Greek system was an important part of my college years, and produced some solid, lifelong friends.

Favorite professor (and why)?
John Field. He took a personal interest and had a passion to see his students succeed.

Class that nearly did you in?
Solid-state physics.

If I knew then what I know now, I would have …
Taken statistics and English grammar — two things I use the most and never really learned in school. I spend a lot of time writing memos and reviewing data.

How does UMaine continue to influence your life?
I’m on the College of Engineering board of advisors. In the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, National Semiconductor is involved in an active co-op program and a microelectronic scholarship program. A third of our engineers graduated from UMaine and we have a strong interest in the engineering programs continuing to thrive.

Best advice to engineering students?
To get a job, show enthusiasm. Find something you’re interested in doing and go for it. Employers always have a positive response if the potential candidate is excited about something.

If not an engineer, what would you be?
Maybe a doctor – but I really can’t imagine doing anything other than what I do now. It’s been a very rewarding career so far.

Note: After this interview was conducted, National Semiconductor and Texas Instruments entered into an agreement whereby TI would acquire its smaller rival, pending regulatory approval. Steve says that development opens up even more doors for him and other National engineers to take their careers to the next level.

Image Description: Steve Swan

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