New Curves and New Mindsets: Shifting the Sustainable-Innovation Curve

By Naga Chandrasekaran - 2020-10-01

The first two decades of the 21st century has seen an exponential increase in the rate of technology innovation that has transformed the way we lead and experience our lives. Solutions that were thought of as science fiction in the last century are becoming reality, at a pace faster than we could imagine. Autonomous vehicles, self-learning devices, precision medicine and many more advances are reshaping the world around us. Technology is becoming more accessible, affordable and integrated into every aspect of our lives.

It’s unusual to talk about COVID-19 and silver linings. Increasing casualties, front-line family stress, small business closings, team member stress, and unemployment are real. But we’ve also seen unexpected positives — like solving some seemingly impossible problems. A vaccine may be developed in months instead of years. And 80% of our workforce is empowered to work from home. That took not only a mindset change but also changes in technology and video calling. Individuals brought their shopping and entertainment into their homes. Schools continued education through online classes. While not perfect, these changes have allowed us to continue with our lives. Semiconductor technology solutions have played a significant role in enabling these transitions.

The majority of technology advancements around us are enabled by advancements in the semiconductor industry and, in particular, memory technology. As we generate increasing amounts of data using our connected devices, we have also increased our need to store and generate intelligence from this data. This need drives increased memory demand.

All these increasing demands and advancements place a higher level of business, social and environmental responsibility on the semiconductor industry. Data center and cloud customers are expecting higher-speed, lower-power memory and storage solutions. Mobile customers who are preparing to adopt 5G are looking for more storage capacity at lower cost and power. Automotive customers are expecting improved quality and reliability for autonomous vehicles.

While the semiconductor industry continues to work on improving product performance (power and speed) at lower cost, we are also facing an increasingly challenging question of whether we are enabling these innovations and solutions in a sustainable manner. The term “sustainability” has multiple facets, including environmental conservation, social responsibility and economic development. At a higher level, I like the definition of the Brundtland Commission in 1987 who defined sustainability as meeting our present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

But the question that comes to our mind is, “Can we deliver on improving product performance at lower cost while also managing sustainability requirements?” Sustainability and product performance at lower cost could be considered mutually exclusive. To improve product performance, we are forced to develop new equipment, introduce new materials and advance materials-processing techniques. Such semiconductor processing approaches also drive higher cost — but more importantly, higher energy, emissions and waste. After all, it’s not easy to be a better steward of the earth when faster performance, cheaper cost and better quality are the primary objectives.

Not easy … but not impossible. Micron believes we can deliver on technology and product requirements, be competitive on cost for customers, and meet our own aggressive sustainability goals. To solve these seemingly conflicting problems, we need to change our mindset (to a growth mindset) and open the doors to a new paradigm through innovation.

Changing How We Think About Innovation

I want to explain the growth mindset with the “S-curve” innovation thinking that is attributed to Richard Foster (1986) and made famous by Clayton Christensen in the book “Innovator’s Dilemma.” Each S-curve can be thought of as a technology platform or a way of thinking and innovating around an established thought process (Technology 1 curve). Moving up a given S curve delivers progress through incremental innovation (B to C). However, at some point, the benefits saturate (D), and we need radical innovation to change the paradigm and deliver significant improvements. These scenarios are identified as inflection points. In the beginning, the new technology or approach seems inferior (Technology 2 curve) or not possible. But its potential is high and we need a growth mindset to be open to this new approach.

We are facing one such inflection point. Technology advancement is driving advancements in our way of living. Such advancement requirements also challenge our way of technology development. We are in this dilemma zone to identify how to deliver technology advancements while delivering our goals for sustainability. Solving this dilemma requires disruptive innovation.

We must identify inflection points where we can deliver innovations in equipment, materials and process that put us on a curve to meet product performance requirements, cost and sustainability goals.

Reducing water use in our fabs, for example, can compromise product performance (leading to defects). That’s unacceptable. Introduction of new materials and equipment is essential to drive scaling to deliver lower cost and advanced performance. Such changes will affect our energy use, emissions and waste. But if we stay on the current curve for technology development processes, we are unlikely to achieve our environmental goals. As an organization, we still work on the paper cups and plastic bottles aspect of sustainability, of course. But if we make disruptive technology innovations, we can make significant progress on our goals to reduce water, waste, emissions and energy to deliver a sustainable development process.

With that approach — innovating not just to improve sustainability but to improve our products — I believe Micron can solve big challenges in energy, emissions, waste and water:

Energy use: To scale and increase performance of memory and storage chips for 5G in mobile phones, cloud data servers and new compute requirements, we must deliver faster speeds and reduced power requirements. Reducing power requirements in our products can significantly improve energy costs and the carbon footprint for our customers. At the same time, to deliver to these requirements, we are constantly shrinking geometries and devising new materials and equipment. Such solutions can result in higher energy consumption within our own factories, so we need to work closely with our process and equipment solution providers to drive energy efficiency. Such energy-efficient solutions are not only better for sustainability but they will also drive lower energy costs in our operations.

Hazardous waste: New manufacturing materials often require advanced chemicals or gases to process the wafer — and they’re not necessarily eco-friendly. Increasing use of such chemistries limits reuse of water but also increases the total waste that needs to be disposed. When we invest in a fabrication facility, our costs to properly process hazardous waste are continuously driving up total wafer costs. We should constantly drive activities with two approaches: 1) reducing the need for hazardous materials to process wafers and 2) figuring out how to repurpose the waste to solutions that enable a circular economy.

Water: As we use more complex processes, we use more water. If water mixes with chemicals we can’t process on a standard basis, we need to segregate them. So our deprocessing cost is high, and total water use gets higher. We need to look at reducing, recycling and reusing our water resources while also constantly looking for opportunities to replenish water. Working with semiconductor equipment manufacturers, we can drive reductions in total water use and promote advanced technologies that can reuse and recycle water. In addition, we can look for opportunities to take surface water and add it to improve our groundwater levels. We can also look for opportunities to improve water conservation activities in the communities where we operate.

Emissions: To process complex materials, we create more carbon dioxide emissions. The equipment to abate them, ironically, also produces greenhouse gas emissions. So we need to devise new eco-friendly gases and ways to abate emissions. And we must do it without increasing costs significantly. In many semiconductor processing steps, only a fraction of the gases and chemicals are used to achieve the end result, even though a significant amount of it has to be used during processing. We should work with our equipment manufacturers to improve reaction efficiency and also advance techniques to abate any unreacted gases and chemicals.

Instilling a Mindset Change

Everything we do to improve product performance and reduce product cost seems to conflict with the sustainability goals we set. But rather than saying "I will always have these competing goals," the challenge is to see how to create harmony between these goals and achieve them collectively.

In traditional program management, we use three vectors to constrain a problem, namely, schedule, scope and budget. In our development activities, we can redefine these as schedule, product performance (scope) and cost (budget). These three vectors constrain the overall problem statement. We now have to overlay environmental sustainability as an overarching vector on top of the constraints. We have to deliver product at the required customer performance, cost and schedule while also enabling it in a sustainable manner. Sustainability should be the overarching theme.

Engineers know they must be cost-conscious; they build budgets into their requirements for solutions. Product requirements are clearly defined in the specification sheet, and every technology node is developed to meet performance and cost targets. Moving forward, Micron engineers also need to include sustainability in their requirements. When they integrate a new piece of manufacturing equipment or process, they need to think about its performance and cost — as well as about its power use, water use and emissions, and ways to reduce them.

This approach should become a fundamental requirement and be driven as an expectation through our supply chain. When everything is equivalent, sustainability should be the tie-breaker. Such actions and decisions will not only meet our corporate social responsibility requirements but will also add business value by reducing our overall operational costs. This is the mindset shift we’re trying to inspire and ingrain.

But it’s a collective, collaborative mindset. To identify and deliver innovations that drive major sustainability and performance solutions, we need our engineers from different disciplines (process, integration and facilities, to name just a few) to come together. We also need strong collaboration between Micron engineers and our development partners (equipment, materials, utility providers and waste-processing vendors).

Luckily, this kind of collaboration is where Micron already excels. But if it’s not your organization’s strength, then your mandate must be to create an environment where innovation can flourish — whether that starts with ad hoc conversations at the water cooler or an online environment that stimulates and supports a collaborative culture.

Continuing the Progress We’ve Made

Over the last decade, we’ve undergone a huge amount of behavior change within our culture to drive a sustainability focus. In 2011, we started a safety initiative that went beyond slips and trips and ventured into advanced technology safety — such as complex chemicals and gases interaction, which are a hazard inherent to the technology industry.

Such efforts have changed our culture, development mindset and approach. These changes have resulted in improved technology safety and behavioral safety. Today, our Boise site and factory holds an industry benchmark in OSHA ratings. We have also integrated safety into our equipment and process development, as well as to technology transfers for our manufacturing processes. Every site has a process hazard analysis (PHA) group that works closely with technology teams, facilities and EHS.

We’re thinking bigger and more broadly about safety, and now we are starting similar efforts with sustainability. Over the next five years, operational sustainability will be integrated into every technology development process, and goals and solutions will be developed to drive us to benchmark performance.

We can’t manufacture innovation, but we can build an environment where nothing is considered impossible — we just don't know how it can be done yet. That’s a mindset change that begets behavior change. It’s what I want people to get excited about in sustainability, as opposed to thinking, "Ah, that's another thing I need to do."

We can do it; our culture of innovation and collaboration is driven by a hunger and passion for sustainability. And that’s why Micron will be successful — because team members understand the business value and importance to the greater good. And they care. We don’t just want to be a good corporate citizen, eco-friendly and green. We demand that of ourselves. It is the growth mindset we expect from every Micronite, and I’m confident that we will be a benchmark organization in delivering a safe, sustainable, world-class technology solution.

Naga Chandrasekaran

Naga Chandrasekaran

Naga Chandrasekaran, Micron’s senior vice president of Technology Development, leads device, silicon integration, process and package technology development for all memory and nonmemory products. Dr. Chandrasekaran also manages corporate characterization labs, advanced data science and AI/ML development activities for product development, mask technology and R&D fabrication operations at the Boise, Idaho, headquarters.