Doug Bartholomew, Samuel Greengard, Glenn Hasek, John Jesitus, Scott Leibs, Kristin Ohlson, Robert Patton, Barb Schmitz, Tim Stevens, and John Teresko contributed to this article. Every year, semiconductor manufacturers spend billions of dollars on equipment to improve yields. In an industry where the tiniest mistake can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, improving accuracy has become a religion. Unfortunately, chip makers have never been able to address human error. Despite hours of classroom training -- with lectures, slides, course work, and quizzes -- operators continue to pile up mistakes. In fact, an error rate of 25% to 30% is pretty much the norm at most companies. Tom Orton wants to change all that. The former Intel Corp. and SGS Thomson Microelectronics NV executive has created a software company, Modis Training Technologies Inc., that creates custom virtual-reality environments to help guide workers through the complexities of working in a fab -- where hundreds of steps are required to manufacture chips. Using a CD, the Internet, or the corporate intranet, they are able to navigate through their company's facility, put on a gown and goggles, step into an air shower, and proceed to a cleanroom -- all inside a Windows 95- or NT- equipped Pentium PC. Once there, they can operate machinery and simulate a real work environment. The system can track their progress and provide detailed data on how many mistakes they are making, what areas they're having trouble with, and much more. "It eliminates the inconsistencies of conventional instruction and creates an effective, interactive learning environment," says Orton, who formed the company in April 1996. Best of all, the system is fun to use. "It's almost like playing a video game," says Jim Thompson, manager of education services at IBM Microelectronics in Burlington, Vt. Indeed, trainees receive a score at the end of the session, and management knows when an employee is ready to hit the cleanrooms. But the software also provides other sophisticated capabilities. Combined with computer-based training, it lets users click on objects and receive detailed descriptions, listen to audio, view videos, analyze animations, and take quizzes. If a person doesn't understand any part of the program, he or she can review material as needed. The 3-D virtual-reality environment offers an opportunity to tour a facility, look at specific rooms, and operate equipment using realistic-looking controls. So far, Modis has helped firms such as IBM Corp., Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., Motorola Inc., Rockwell International Corp., Intel Corp., and Vitesse Semiconductor cut errors to 1% to 2%. It has also slashed downtime on machines -- caused by both damage from errors and the need to use the machines in training. What's more, when operators first step into the factory, they are already familiar with the fab and the sophisticated array of machines. "They feel as though they've already been there and done that," says Orton. Although the software typically costs anywhere from $100,000 to $500,000, semiconductor companies are recouping the expense in anywhere from a couple weeks to a few months. "It solves a problem that the industry has tried for years to tackle," explains Radu Andrei, an industry analyst at Semico Research Corp., Phoenix. "Virtual reality is the perfect media for training because it's active learning rather than passive. You have to pay attention because you are immersed in the environment." For Orton, all this is just a start. He believes that virtual reality will grow from its present niche as a tool for the military, airlines, and semiconductor industry and become a major part of training throughout industry. Of course, he hopes to be there to supply software to nuclear-power companies, medical professionals, electrical utilities, and just about anyone else required to learn complex or potentially dangerous procedures. "This is the future of training," he says.
Modis Training Technologies Inc.Mesa, Ariz.
Modis simulation software