We spoke with Hannes Voraberger, Head of Research & Development, about future trends in the industry and how innovation and the 'New Working World' are lived out at AT&S.
Question: It is impossible to imagine our highly technological and networked world without printed circuit boards - where can you currently find AT&S products?
Voraberger: Everywhere where there is 'digitalization'. Generally speaking, our printed circuit boards ensure that signals are transported and devices are supplied with power, or that the devices are given mechanical stability.
We really rose to the top of the world market with the motherboards for Nokia and Blackberry mobile phones. From there, AT&S products can now be found in self-driving cars as well as in 5G antennas and hearing implants.
Q: Only recently AT&S caused a sensation with an image sensor that is smaller than a grain of rice. Why do your products have to get smaller and smaller?
V: Miniaturization plays a central role in the processing and transport of data, because the smaller and thinner the so-called nodes, i. e. the actual 'computers' in a chip, become, the less energy they need for computing. However, especially in the field of miniaturization, we are dependent on the overall system being adapted to our chips. That is also the reason why we decided a few years ago to take a step in the value chain towards chips and now also manufacture substrates - the circuit boards, so to speak, on which silicon components are applied and encased, which then go onto the motherboards.
Q: And why are the nodes getting smaller?
V: Well, in 2019, 7-nanometre node technology was introduced, which increases computing speed by up to 40 percent while consuming 65 percent less energy. Currently, work is already underway on 5nm node technology and the groundwork is being developed for 2nm node technology, which promises another up to 45 percent increase in performance and 75 percent energy savings over 7nm node technology. And energy saving is also the major goal of our research work. Because data processing and transport will continue to increase - just think of video telephony or e-mobility - but we cannot afford to spend even more energy on it.
There is still a lot of potential for optimization, especially in e-mobility. Electricity is converted ten to 15 times from the power plant to the road, and energy is lost every time. In this area, we are working intensively on wide bandgap semiconductor technology, which can reduce this energy loss by up to 60 percent.
Q: These examples already show very clearly how important innovation is for AT&S. Can innovation even be learned?
V: No. But as a company you can create an environment that enables and promotes innovation. We always start with a clear task that is derived from our innovation strategy. Everyone is invited to contribute creative ideas and solutions. The rest, i.e. all the steps it takes to bring a product to the market and produce it in the correspondingly high quantities, requires efficient processes and professional organization. And this transformation from the first idea to production is always a challenge.
A central role is certainly also played by a proper error culture in the company. Even if it's difficult, a mistake must be seen as a gift through which one is allowed to learn.
A culture in which "nothing can go wrong" leads to mistakes being concealed and that is the worst thing. We are people who move on the edge of what is possible, and something always happens. That's why it's important to talk about it and learn.
Q: You just mentioned the right environment for innovation. AT&S is currently building a new office building at the Leoben site, which is being financed by Raiffeisen Leasing, and which is entitled 'New Working World'. Can you give a brief insight into what is meant by this new working world at AT&S?
V: Home office and remote work were already used as working models in many departments before the pandemic. The pandemic has further strengthened this trend and we now see the advantages of flexible models even more clearly. Of course, it is possible to work very efficiently in a home office, but the appropriate framework conditions must be in place.
That's why the new office building will, for example, offer sufficient facilities for video calls with colleagues in the home office. Loosened-up open-plan offices and many areas where people can retreat to work alone or as a group to concentrate will also give us the flexibility we need to be able to balance the fluctuating numbers of staff on site well.
The advantages of well-functioning virtual meetings also influence the number of business trips, which - not only due to Corona - are decreasing. However, in the long run we will need a good mix, because we are already noticing that the unofficial exchange that happens on the sidelines of a business trip, for example, is missing. For example, when someone at our plant in China is working on a similar problem and has perhaps already solved it without us knowing about each other.
And here we come back full circle to our products - because digitalization plays a central role in the new world of work. We need more and more power, but we cannot afford to spend even more energy on it.