How would you spray a thin film of material—say, a layer of atoms or molecules—onto another layer of atoms? Mother Nature does this with frost, and believe it or not, a similar process is used to create the latest Optoelectronic Thin Film Devices such as LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes) and LDs (Laser Diodes). At Samsung, where continuous improvements in component technology are needed to stay ahead of competition, puzzles like these are what keep engineers such as Hyunmin Shin, 41, up all night. As manager of Samsung Corning R&D, Shin is the program manager for much of Samsung’s research into GaN Single Crystals—gallium nitride (GaN) wafers, key components in manufacturing nitride-based optoelectronic devices. Born in Korea and educated at home and in U.S. (his Ph.D. in Materials Science is from North Carolina State University), Shin represents the best and brightest of Samsung’s manufacturing science.
—Craig Bromberg

How did you get interested in thin film devices? What’s the big challenge that drew you to the field?
When I first started working on semiconductor thin films, it was pure pleasure to understand how atoms or molecules come together as a solid mass. For a while, I indulged myself in thin film-coating techniques, but eventually I started studying existing coating devices, and I began to design and build them myself. To make a product with quality in an efficient way, you have to control the material properties and build the machine that makes it possible. That helped a lot when I built the first growth reactor for bulk gallium nitride. Until then, you couldn’t make GaN wafers because bulk gallium nitride—or the growth reactor that produces it—wasn’t commercially available. My hands-on skill and technical experience made that possible. I’m still excited by it.

You’ve lived and worked in both the U.S. and Korea. Are there any real differences in those countries scientific and manufacturing cultures?
In the U.S., scientists develop business models based on their work. By the time they get to the manufacturing stage, they’ve already focused on the customer’s needs and the business case. If they need to change the production method, they already have the scientific data. That attitude didn’t exist in Korea until about 10 years ago. They didn’t know how to use experimental data in industry. Instead they resorted to trial and error. Masterpieces were made by the hands of the master. But things have changed. Today, Six Sigma has overcome many of the technical difficulties at both the factory and the lab.

Your background is equally weighted between applied and pure research. Just how important is pure research for a company like Samsung?
Without pure research, there are no new applications of scientific fact—all the experimental work in the laboratory is just shooting in the dark. But pure research has no meaning unless it produces tangible products that customers find useful. In the end, you have to do both simultaneously to develop new technologies.

How has manufacturing changed in the time that you’ve been working for Samsung? Have management imperatives such as TQM and Six Sigma changed the game?
For many years, Samsung had a TQM (Total Quality Management) program that stressed total staff commitment to “customer” satisfaction. TQM effectively replaced top-down management with decentralized, customer-driven decision-making. Then, several years ago, Samsung also introduced Six Sigma, which has since taken on a broader meaning, but the fundamental purpose is to improve processes so there are at least six standard deviations between the worst case limit and the mean of process variations. For the statistically challenged, that means the process is essentially defect free! Six Sigma brought rapid and radical change in productivity and quality of the product to the factory floor. It’s a revolutionary business model. The tools aren’t new but they helped us draw new conclusions about how to satisfy our customers.

Does manufacturing push design or is design merely the veneer of manufacturing capability?
Today, customers care more about design than manufacturing. In today’s increasingly competitive corporate marketplace, technology development is approaching an asymptotic level: Every product pretty much functions the same no matter who makes it, so customers choose the better design. However, today’s customers can’t be deceived by looks, so good design has to be accompanied with real quality in the product. Otherwise, customers will go right back to ugly looking cell phones.