The Wafer That Conquered the World - Wacker Chemie AG


The Wafer That Conquered the World

Johann Schandl, 57, owns a computer, a cell phone, a car, a heating system and a bicycle computer for his racing bike. And what makes all of these devices work is the flat disk at the heart of Schandl’s entire career.

Johann Schandl’s “finishing/epitaxy 300 mm” facility manufactures hyperpure silicon wafers with a highly polished mirror-like effect.

When he was pursuing his mechanical engineering degree, Schandl would not have imagined that he would one day dedicate years of intense effort to a wafer. Producing these wafers is the job of Technology Development, which is where Schandl began his career at WACKER subsidiary Chemitronic in Burghausen, in 1983 (Siltronic AG since 2004). Just one year later, Chemitronic produced the first 200 mm wafer.

But what is a wafer actually? “It’s a flat disk made of hyperpure polycrystalline silicon that meets exacting geometric requirements,” Schandl explains. “And it can’t contain any particles or metal atoms either.” Wafers serve as the base material for computer chips and other electronic components. The term “geometric requirements” here means that the wafer has to be almost perfectly flat. “If the wafer were the size of Europe, the differences in elevation couldn’t be more than six meters,” Schandl says, going on to explain what he means by metallic purity: “All it takes is one single metal atom out of a billion silicon atoms, and the electronic component made from the wafer won’t work.”

In 1990, Schandl was involved in the first research to be conducted on a 300 mm wafer. Four years later he saw Wacker-Chemitronic GmbH become Wacker Siltronic GmbH. In 1999 he and his wife and two daughters moved to Singapore, where he oversaw operations of a new plant for manufacturing 200 mm wafers. “It was really interesting to work on a multicultural team with members from Singapore, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, India, Australia, the U.S. and Germany,” says Schandl, looking back on his time in Singapore. “It didn’t take long for us to become a really good team.”

Returning to Burghausen in 2002, Schandl first took on production management for final cleaning operations (small diameter wafers). He has served as production manager for silicon wafer finishing/epitaxy (300 mm) since 2004, initially in Burghausen and then in 2013 for the Freiberg site as well. Today, Siltronic AG is one of the world’s largest wafer manufacturers, with a customer base that includes all major chip manufacturers.

Even though all silicon wafers look the same – round and shiny – there are enormous differences. “Our customers dictate the parameters,” says Schandl, “which include everything from carbon and oxygen content to electrical properties and chip geometry.” The wafers are manufactured in cleanrooms, which must be many times cleaner than an operating room or hospital. As a result, every employee has to suit up in a cleanroom uniform consisting of coveralls, a hood, face mask, shoes and two pairs of gloves worn one over the other – only the area around the eyes remains exposed.

Despite the company’s profound dependence on global economic trends, Johann Schandl looks to Siltronic’s future with optimism: “We’re setting our sights on the energy management and saving sectors. We’ll be seeing some growth there in the coming years.”