Not only are they extremely tiny in the meantime, but we can no longer imagine our lives without them: microchips. The entirety of today’s information and communication technology is simply not conceivable without them. Think, for example, about the rapid development from the first mobile phones to today’s smartphones: they are basically pocket-sized computers. Modern technology is getting smaller and more powerful by the day. But what do microchips in smartphones have to do with ZEISS, an optics and optoelectronics concern?
Tobias Scharfenecker knows the answer. But he also knows that it is a pretty complex subject that is hard to pack into a couple of sentences: “Among other things, ZEISS is also a leading global supplier for the semiconductor manufacturing equipment industry. ZEISS develops and manufactures lithography optics and other optical systems that make it possible for the chip manufacturers worldwide to produce extremely powerful microchips. Use of light with very short wavelengths plays a central role in this process. It is used to apply the finest structures to silicon discs, so-called wafers. Together, these structures form a microchip. At the heart of the equipment that exposes wafers to light are ZEISS lithography optics. In principle, one can imagine them as big slide projectors. The result are the circuits of a microchip.” If you are not sure what all this mean – don’t worry! Tobias Scharfenecker is the first to admit that in the beginning, it was difficult for him too to fully understand this technology. “At the same time, I was totally excited by the possibilities. Actually, one cannot really imagine this: The structures that the chip manufacturer creates by using light are 4,000 times thinner than a human hair. It is simply stunning how a microchip can be revolutionized with an optical engine, with light,” he says. And the rule for microchips is simple: The smaller the semiconductor structures, the more powerful and energy-efficient they become.
With an eye to the advances in computer technology, the increasing networking, but also to energy-efficient processors and storage as they are required by the artificial intelligence and autonomous driving, the minituarization technology is set to become even more important in the future. “I think it is fantastic and very significant that ZEISS, as a traditional business, keeps up with the times this way, and that we work on a technology here that is not only essential today, but is also of great importance for the future of our society, because every new optics and scanner generation allows to apply even finer structures to the microchip. The last few years in my job provided a striking illustration of how fast the requirements change and how quickly one has to respond to them,” notes Scharfenecker, describing his personal fascination with the semiconductor technology.
The professional career of the 32 year-old young man from Aalen began with a vocational training in industrial mechanics. Employment as a system group technician in the semiconductor technology manufacturing department at ZEISS was next, and after came the shift supervisor position. Since last June, Scharfenecker is in charge of the components assembly for optical modules as a team leader with personnel responsibility. “My team is responsible for the final assembly of these components,” he reveals. Although his new duties are increasingly desk-bound, regular visits to the production site for cross-departmental exchanges are still a part of his job routine. If what you are envisioning right now is a classic production shop busy with drilling, planing, milling and grinding – nothing could be further from the truth. The above-mentioned components are produced in so-called clean rooms. “The first time I stepped foot in one of these rooms, I though I entered a different world,” says Scharfenecker laughing. “People who work here are wearing white clothes and face protection – a bit like a forensics team in a crime thriller. The reason for it are the extremely stringent cleanliness requirements in the semiconductor industry. The tiniest impurities or particles can disturb the structure of the circuits of a microchip and cause huge damages when one is working in orders of magnitude in the range of a fraction of a micrometer,” explains Scharfenecker.
“Back then, I got my training at a small metal processing plant. Working here at ZEISS, a big global enterprise, is of course something very different. Apart from the fascination with the semiconductor technology, there are several other factors that I value particularly about working here. Especially, for example, the good work-life balance thanks to flexible working-time models and the numerous continuing education and development possibilities offered by ZEISS,” explains Scharfenecker. “The working conditions and personal prospects are right, the professional fields are innovative and promising, the social interaction and atmosphere are emphasized, and I have a feeling that here, I am not just a number: individual people count.” This is also an especially important aspect in his own team. “One thing that motivates me enormously is recognizing potentials of my colleagues and then providing targeted support to advance them,” he adds. “We have sufficient decision-making freedom in this area, which is very valuable, and the superiors and the company support it further.” The picture of the ideal employer for Scharfenecker is completed by the fact that ZEISS happens to be practically at his doorstep. “I have always been very attached to my roots, in spite of my ambitious career goals. I love traveling for fun, but I don’t really want to move my entire life elsewhere. ZEISS is definitely the jackpot for me! A company that I can identify with and a reliable employer that offers everything that is important to me personally, and the cherry on top is that I don’t even have to move to a different city or country – but could, if it were my goal,” he grins. His own special ZEISS moment? Scharfenecker describes the day when he reached the last career goal he had aspired to: “The announcement in the internal newsletter that I am a team leader effective immediately – that was really an amazing feeling!”