Culture & People

Head of Manufacturing Technology Noh Jung Kwak: “To Prepare the Future with No.1 Manufacturing Competitiveness”

By February 4, 2021 February 18th, 2021 No Comments

In Noh Jung Kwak’s office, located in the SUPEX Center of SK hynix’s Icheon Campus, you can take in a grand view of the main production facilities through the big window. This place is the best location as the office for the Manufacturing Technology Head who manages all production sites of SK hynix.

Kwak also showed his vibrant energy throughout the interview. As a person in charge of an organization that continues to grow day by day, he answered all questions with clear and detailed words. His answer to the last year’s achievements was filled with his pride, and his answer to this year’s plan showed his solid confidence in the bright future of SK hynix.

Production Management Expert Responsible for the SK hynix’s “Yield”

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The most important indicator in semiconductor production is “yield1,” a factor that has a great influence on profitability. As semiconductor processes are becoming finer and more complicated, managing the yield above a certain level is becoming very difficult. Also, if the yield cannot be raised during the ramp-up process, productivity and quality competitiveness are decreased, no matter how great the developed technology is. While leading the organization in charge of manufacturing and technology, Kwak is playing a key role in managing the “yield” that determines SK hynix’s product competitiveness.

“Most of the SK hynix’s assets are in the fabs. When we can make good use of them, a high level of yield can be achieved. In that sense, the sum of the company’s fab technologies can be defined as the ‘yield’. Therefore, raising this yield to the Best in Class (BIC) level is also a goal that Manufacturing Technology at SK hynix is pursuing all the way.”

“Last year, we’ve seen many unexpected variables because of the COVID-19 crisis. Nevertheless, we’ve solved problems occurring in the supply chain through emergency responses, such as diversifying supply routes and shortening the set-up period of the equipment.

During this process, we’ve reorganized the roadmap for emergency response and prepared a personal manual, by assuming all imaginable crises. Through this, even in the case of a bigger crisis in the future, we are able to respond systematically with the scenarios prepared in advance. This was all possible because of great cooperation from all our members. I’d like to express my gratitude once again for the dedication and sacrifice made by them.”

These efforts have led to the strengthened product competitiveness, raising SK hynix’s status in the market to the next level. Even in the midst of small and big crises, main indicators have improved greatly. The key yield indicators of DRAM and NAND, which had been somewhat weak early last year, have improved significantly in the second half. Also, the mass-production quality of NAND in addition to DRAM, which had already been highly evaluated in the market, has shown a remarkable improvement. As a result, the market and customer evaluations of SK hynix’s products have risen sharply.

“Previously, when the market situation was good, the fab capacity was lacking, resulting in insufficient yield. When the yield was satisfied, however, the market situation worsened again, which made things very difficult. However, this year is different. The market is expected to recover and the new plant M16 will be operated as well. Also, in the existing M15, phase 2 can also be opened when necessary according to the market situation. We should make good use of this great opportunity. I can feel my heart beating with excitement.”

To continue this atmosphere full of promises, Kwak decided this year’s vision of Manufacturing Technology as “SUPEX mass-production technology! Value creation! Happiness together!”. To realize this vision, he presented a new goal of establishing two mid- to long-term plans based on VWBE2 covering three years respectively (first plan: current – 2023; second plan: 2024 – 2026) to secure a firm No.1 competitiveness in six years.

“SK hynix’s technology can be largely divided into development-related technology and mass-production-related technology, and Manufacturing Technology is in charge of the latter. What we need to pursue is to reach ‘Super Excellent (SUPEX)’ in the aspect of mass-production technology. Only when that is achieved as a prerequisite, many values such as economic value (EV) and social value (SV) can be created in the future.

I think, in three years, we will be able to approach our highest goal of ‘No.1 competitiveness’, and if we work hard with a goal of another three years from then, we will be able to solidify such competitiveness. We’ve set this goal in the sense of securing an actual and firm No.1 competitiveness, rather than following an unclear slogan.”

Preparation for the post-COVID-19 era is also in progress smoothly. Although the spread of COVID-19 has not stopped yet, there are hopeful predictions that it will start to slow down soon due to the vaccination. In this circumstance, Kwak emphasized the necessity of the efforts to prepare for the future one step ahead.

“To respond to the upcoming opportunities in the post-COVID-19 era, we, Manufacturing Technology at SK hynix, thought that we should not only contribute to the management by producing next-generation products in a timely and competitive manner, but also focus more on strengthening the fundamentals, such as lowering the cost of the products currently being produced.

We need to improve the level of completion in mass-production by collaborating with the development sector. Also, in terms of cost reduction, we need to increase the yield and optimize costs. To achieve this, we will continue to make efforts in the future, such as raising the equipment matching level and establishing a real-time inspection system through automation.”

A Success Planner Designing the Future of the “World’s Best SK hynix”

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Recently, the semiconductor market has been seeing rapid changes and increasingly diversified needs of customers. SK hynix is actively pursuing digital transformation (DT) and changing the way of working to effectively respond to these market changes. The Manufacturing Technology organization has also been working on reorganizing the working environment through continuous innovation since last year. Achieving significant improvement in terms of yield and product quality was also a fruitful result of such efforts.

“Last year was the time for us to make some efforts for reorganizing the working environment. We mainly focused on removing irrational elements and establishing a future direction. For this, we simplified some indicators that unnecessarily overburden the work, providing an environment where employees can fully focus on their own work.”

The Manufacturing Technology organization is the core of the DT pursued by SK hynix. This is because fabs are where the most data is generated within the company. Even at this moment, an enormous amount of data is pouring out from different types of equipment every 0.1 second or less. Kwak said, “The ability to deal with this enormous amount of data determines the company’s ability. The DT level of Manufacturing Technology is directly linked to the quality and yield of the company’s products.”

“In fact, all our members have been carrying out the DT very well. Propelling efficiency in office work allowed us to do much more work in less time. Although the production process is becoming more complicated and demanding, the yield is not just maintained at a certain level, but rather is rising. This is all because the ability to analyze and utilize data in great depth is being secured. It is also because the understanding of the DT is increasing and the capability to leverage it is being accumulated.

We are now focusing on advancing the DT in various ways. We are operating a wide range of exclusive organizations in charge of artificial intelligence (AI) solution, data architecture, and data science and we are also in close collaboration with the DT organization. Also, through collaboration with Gauss Labs (Related article: Interview with Young-Han Kim, CEO of Gauss Labs: “To Overcome Challenges in Manufacturing Industry through AI”), we are realizing aspects of a ‘smart fab’ that will be completed by SK hynix in the future, one by one.”

Kwak, who is improving the structure of Manufacturing Technology through continuous innovation, objectively diagnosed SK hynix’s current status in the industry and shared the thoughts he had, to become the world’s best in all indicators.

“The employees’ capabilities are among the best in the world. They always deliver great results that exceed expectations. Once a goal is set, they show a great sense of responsibility and courage to achieve it with tenacity. Behind this, there is self-sacrifice. This is a virtue that must be respected enough.

There is one more thing I want to add here. The insight. To secure the best status continuously in the semiconductor industry, where fierce global competition is taking place, it is necessary to pursue the attitude of a pioneer who creates something from nothing. The more we approach the No.1 in the industry, the more we should have the insight to think hard and find answers.”

Kwak also emphasized that the company should put more effort into cultivating its human resources to allow the employees to have these capabilities.

“Semiconductor industry is called the equipment industry, but the subject who handles the equipment is people. To make full use of the equipment, the company should invest in people as much as it invests in equipment. No matter how great the equipment is and how good the environment is, the company’s values and capabilities are determined by securing human resources capable of operating the equipment in that environment. To maintain the top position, we need to pay a lot of attention to develop human resources and make efforts.”

In fact, Kwak has been recently making many changes to cultivate human resources within the Manufacturing Technology organization. He first reorganized the training system for each department and then established a standardized training system. The curriculum range has also been extended to include more in-depth content. Last year, “The Self-Improvement Week (SIW)” was also launched. SIW is the time provided by the company during working hours to allow employees to use that time for self-development. A separate space for SIW was also prepared.

“The Manufacturing Technology organization has a fixed delivery date and everything it does is displayed in numbers. I am well aware that the burden that members feel during carrying out their work is great because of this. As the company was growing rapidly, there were also difficulties in having to be put into the field immediately after joining the company. In this kind of work environment, human resources tended to be developed mainly through work. Of course, there are a lot of things they can learn through the work, but the lack of a system was something to be improved.

To improve this aspect, we plan to implement a strategy to secure human resources sooner than when the fab size increases in the entire master plan, provide sufficient training time, and put them into the field. Also, we are trying to secure enough time for employees to focus on their work and to use part of that time for self-development. I am planning to expand the SIW, if the results are good.”

A Leader Who Works in Harmony with Members to Achieve “Field-oriented Management”

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Since joining the company, Kwak has experienced various sectors at SK hynix including the R&D field and production sites. In particular, he made countless achievements in the process of developing micro-processing as a development researcher. Since 2015, he has been in charge of manufacturing sites in earnest and continuing his successful career as a production management expert. What was his secret for having been able to follow such a solid career path? To this question, he cited “passion for work” and “trust relationship with members”.

“I tend to have a lot of passion for work. If there is a delivery deadline and a certain level of quality to be reached, I try hard to achieve 120%, rather than 100%. Since all achievements should be made with the members, a solid trust relationship with them is very important. This is because the members can voluntarily utilize their capabilities to the fullest only when the trust relationship is acting as a basis. I am always grateful to our members who trust each other and collaborate together.”

He advised juniors to “have a wide perspective”. This is also the attitude that Kwak always keeps in mind when working.

“It is very important to take a step further from just doing your own job and see the whole flow. One must be able to work organically by understanding the related work or colleagues’ work. In fact, there is no boundary between jobs at companies with great performance. People who can break down boundaries at any time and work beyond those boundaries, and an organization made up of those people will be able to continue to develop.”

What’s also important as a leader is to listen to the voices of the members by increasing the points for communication. Kwak also emphasizes the importance of communication and tries to communicate with members whenever possible. Last year, however, there were not many opportunities to communicate with the members due to COVID-19. It will be possible only when the situation improves, but he hopes to have some time regularly to meet with members and communicate freely this year.

“One time, a member asked me to talk together when I didn’t have much time, so I just listened to what the member was saying. I couldn’t give any solutions to that concern, but that person thanked me later just for listening, which made me very surprised. It was the moment when I realized that communication is not just about giving answers and that the process of listening, thinking together, and sharing thoughts is important. Now, even if I can’t give an answer, I try to listen to the members’ voices as much as possible.”

The Manufacturing Technology is considered as an organization that is creating social value (SV) most actively in SK hynix. Last year, the organization discovered around 1,000 cases of SV creation and it plans to take efforts more actively to create SV this year.

“The Manufacturing Technology members have strong organizational power, so they move in perfect order once a goal is set, with great teamwork. I think that this kind of organizational culture has highly contributed to the good results last year. This year, we plan to expand the foothold so that more members can actively participate in SV creation. I plan to conduct related training for team leader level members and make efforts to spread awareness among members. The goal of this year is to make it a habit for all members to consider SV in the process of work, rather than to focus on the number of cases for SV creation. I believe if we achieve this goal, good results will naturally follow.

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As he is the first Top TL interviewee this year, the newsroom team asked him for a New Year greeting for the members.

“I wish all members and their families a great year of good health and happiness. I hope that all members will grow and develop together with the company and have a year full of happiness.”


1 Ratio of the number of good products to the number of finished products
2 VWBE: Voluntarily, willingly, brain engagement