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Failures are Assets for Innovation: Jin Kook Kim of SK hynix R&D

By January 9, 2020 January 17th, 2020 No Comments

We learn from failure. Failure allows us to look back at inadequacies, discover new directions, and realize we must ask colleagues for help to move forward. Jin Kook Kim, like many others, experienced countless failures and underwent trials and errors. He went through the feelings of overwhelming frustration emerging from mistakes, and the relief of overcoming those hardships. As a result, based on his vast experiences and capabilities attained over a long career, he now takes charge of SK hynix’s R&D, leading the next-generation technology innovations that will determine the future of SK hynix.

First impressions of Jin Kook Kim pointed to a gentle character, but the more we talked with him, the more we felt overwhelmed by his charisma, like that of a veteran who went through all kinds of hardship. Also impressive was Mr. Kim’s remarkable ability to reply to questions without hesitation, based on strong opinions and in-depth analysis of semiconductor technology while displaying his unmatched knowledge of the market. His intuition was sharp and analysis dispassionate, but it was easy to see his humane side as he expressed his warm-hearted attitude toward his colleagues.

“DNA for Success”, Seeking Solutions within Failures and Achieving Results through Cooperation

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At SK hynix, Jin Kook Kim is considered as a witness of the Company’s history as a well-respected semiconductor specialist. Since joining SK hynix in 1986, Kim has worked on countless projects for 34 years, including the development of 64Mb, 256Mb, 2Gb, 4Gb, and 8Gb DRAMs. He also achieved a long list of successes on the way, such as the development of the world’s first 20nm-class DRAM that utilizes Dual Buried Gate technology, and the world’s first development of High Bandwidth Memory (HBM) based on Through Silicon Via (TSV) technology. Is there a secret behind his outstanding successes?

“In a semiconductor plant, hundreds of unit processes are made during the manufacturing of one single semiconductor chip from a wafer. If just one of these processes fails, it ends in 100% loss, meaning that not even a single chip can be produced. With this in mind, placing value on cooperation and passion without fear for failure is vital for anyone working in the semiconductor industry, because, even if you failed yesterday, you must pick yourself up and challenge the issue again the following day with colleagues.”

Just like others, Kim has also faced countless failures and mistakes on his career path. He recalled abrupt nightmares waking him up even recently, involving his work blunder when he was a new employee that made his boss panic and turn pale. Nonetheless, it was the “encouragement and support from the people around him” that gave him strength to overcome these failures and raised him to the position where he is today.

“Behind the achievement that SK hynix overcame fierce competition and became the world’s third biggest semiconductor manufacturer, are the colleagues who devoted their youth to SK hynix in a very harsh environment. I was just one of them. But thanks to encouragement from the people around me, I gathered enough courage to challenge again and again, even with failures hanging over my head. Only with the colleagues at the Company who supported me every time I faced a new obstacle I was able to make such achievements.”

It was those lessons that came from the failures that guided Kim to numerous successes. Based on such experiences, Kim even devised and successfully carried forward the unique “Failure Case Competition” within the Company. This competition aims to transform individual researchers’ failed research and development projects into the Company’s shared assets. Kim’s valuable experience of achieving successes by taking on new challenges without fear for failures has finally begun being inherited to junior colleagues.

“New technologies emerge from the accumulation of numerous failures. In that sense, failures are certainly assets for innovation. To make this possible, it’s important to share cases of failures and learn from them, so we can avoid making the same mistakes. The Failure Case Competition was built from this idea, and I’m relieved that many are now aware of the necessity of sharing failure cases. However, we mustn’t stop here. Sharing failure cases should lead to new lessons, and then to challenges. To maintain technological competitiveness that lasts long into the future, it is important to create a habit of continuous challenges to develop new technology.”

Throughout the interview, Kim emphasized the importance of cooperation for several times, reiterating that one must reach out to support others in first place. Only then your coworkers will provide you with sincere helps and supports.

“The manufacturing process of semiconductors can only be completed when every expert utilizes their expertise in their fields and works in sync with other colleagues. It is crucial to acknowledge that cooperation is the very fundamental of the way how we work. When someone tries their best in their field, one can open the colleagues’ minds, which ultimately leads to the innovative achievements that can’t be accomplished by just one person.”

Kim also gave some indispensable advices to juniors in the Company. “There are limitless technological challenges we must overcome. I sincerely hope bright new engineers challenge themselves and grow, instead of holding brilliant ideas to themselves, so that the creations of truly revolutionary innovations can flourish,” said Kim. “Every single action we take today is invaluable. Working as a memory semiconductor expert is how we respond to the zeitgeist and prepare for the future.”

“The Most Well-respected Semiconductor Expert Preparing for the future of SK hynix

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In 2017, Jin Kook Kim was appointed Head of SK hynix R&D, which meant he inherited the huge responsibility and burden of raising the future potential of SK hynix’s members. Even in such huge pressure, Kim continued to build up the foundations of SK hynix, so that the Company can keep catching up with Moore’s Law1). Even now, he prepares for the future and strives to spread hope so that every colleague can enjoy better working environments in future.

“We’ve been through an unprecedented boom for the past two years followed by another slump. I realized again that to perform well consistently regardless of market fluctuations, it is critical to be well prepared for the future. Preparation for the future can’t be done overnight. We need to clarify the direction of technologies, and then prepare for them step by step. Before anything else, we realigned the technology roadmap and restructured organizations in preparation for future technologies, while responding to our technologies’ limitations. From next year, we will set up element technologies in advance by focusing on implementing our roadmap, and secure memory solutions at the right time to satisfy the expectations of customers and ICT industry.”

The R&D will conduct research and development in two tracks to maintain the competitiveness of the Company’s core technologies and preemptively respond to the shifting trends of future technologies at the same time. The first strategy, titled “Evolutionary Path,” aims to keep developing the Company’s current core semiconductor technologies until they hit the physical / technological limitations. The R&D predicts that SK hynix’s current core technologies will continue to develop for the next decade, and based on this expectation, a comprehensive roadmap has been established. The R&D is also seeking new solutions to prolong this ten-year term.

“New information flows based on future technologies, such as 5G, artificial intelligence (AI) and big data, are expected to be the driving force of creating a new civilization. To create information and spread it, it must be saved and stored somewhere. In that sense, continuously providing new memory solutions is how semiconductors play their role as the ‘backbone of the industry.’ We will commit ourselves to overcoming technological barriers by focusing our full efforts on die shrinks for DRAMs and stacking up more layers for NAND Flash.”

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The other strategy, “Revolutionary Path,” aims to prepare for “disruptive innovation.” To achieve this, the R&D is preparing for the element technologies which all semiconductor companies should prepare together, by carrying out its own future analysis and reflecting on independent research conducted by private enterprises, research centers, and educational institutions.

“While the Evolutionary Path represents going forward from now to the future, the Revolutionary Path represents bringing the future to the present world. In the short term, we are working on technologies converging different memory semiconductors. At the same time, our long-term approach is to prepare for converging technology which integrates memory and logic chips. Furthermore, we are also preparing for a futuristic memory solution that satisfies the requirements of the Post-Von Neumann computing architecture, which is the next phase of today’s Von Neumann computing architecture2).”

Kim made an objective diagnosis of SK hynix’s current position and further clarified its direction for the future. Kim pointed out that SK hynix can step up as a Best-In-Class (BIC) company, only when it shifts its position from a manufacturing-oriented company to a technology-centric company, and when it establishes a business system that prioritizes products that meet diversified needs of the customers.

“As SK hynix established a foothold in the global market, it showed some room for improvement regarding its technological competitiveness. For this reason, SK hynix committed itself to narrowing the technology gap and growing as a technology-centric company. These efforts led to the achievements in both DRAM and NAND Flash sectors last year. Based on this technological competitiveness, Seok-hee Lee, CEO of SK hynix announced that it is time for SK hynix to move forward as a product-centric company. It is expected that the newly established Chief Product & Production Officer (CPO) organization will play a key role in this progress. Instead of simply carrying out research projects without practical objectives, the R&D will also stick to its role of leading the Company’s technological innovation and developing the technologies that can be easily applied to mass-production processes.”

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As the interview came to a close, we asked Kim how he defines himself as “a leader of many at the R&D and SK hynix.” Kim responded he likes to think of himself as “a leader who strives to transform dreams into reality.”

“Rather than just having a dream, I’d like to be a leader who goes above and beyond for the realization of inspiring dreams.”

Throughout the interview, Kim emphasized his desire that the Company’s members can enjoy peace of mind and have “hope” for what they do and the future they will establish. We all expect the future shaped by SK hynix will be hopeful just like Kim’s wish.

 

 

1A law which states that the amount of data can be stored in a semiconductor chip doubles every 24 months
2Architecture of general-purpose computers with CPU, memory and programs