Technician Excels at National Lab by Building “Toolbox” of Skills and Knowledge

Lawrence Livermore National Lab
Senior Technologist Antonio Correa Barrios operates a physical vapor deposition system that produces thin films for scientific experiments at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

To say Antonio Correa Barrios enjoys his work as a senior technologist in the Advanced Coating and Vacuum Process Lab at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) would be an understatement.

“I love the hands-on. I love being exposed to all the science. I love working with the engineers and scientists. I don’t know if it is the same for many labs and research institutes, but [LLNL] technicians, you definitely get exposed to quite a bit,” Correa Barrios said during a videoconference interview.

Correa Barrios has earned his way onto more complex projects with what his boss calls a “full toolbox” of technical skills ranging from drafting and welding to vacuum technology knowledge and eagerness to learn new skills.

“He went up the ladder—because of his skills—faster than I’ve seen anyone do it. He went from a technician to a senior technologist in five years. It’s unheard of. But, again, he’s built his toolbox,” John Chesser said of Correa Barrios. Chesser is the senior supervisor of the Advanced Coating and Vacuum Process Lab within LLNL’s Materials Engineering Division.

Lawrence Livermore National Lab
Antonio Correa Barrios

Correa Barrios built his toolbox of skills by doing things like choosing to be in the first cohort of LLNL technicians who took the three-course thin films certificate offered remotely by Normandale Community College. Faculty from the public college in Bloomington, Minnesota, deliver courses via telepresence that combines real-time instruction via teleconference technologies with hands-on, in-person vacuum trainers. The equipment and curriculum, which now also includes the nation’s only associate of applied science degree in vacuum and thin film technology, were developed with the support of an Advanced Technological Education grant from the National Science Foundation.

Correa Barrios and Chesser are part of a group of eight technicians/technologists, three engineers and one materials scientist whose work focuses on using vacuum technology to deposit thin films on prototypes and components developed by other LLNL groups or the lab’s customers. Despite its importance to many consumer products, vacuum technology is not widely known beyond the niche it occupies within high-tech industries and research institutions.

Correa Barrios observed, “Our life kind of revolves around vacuum technology even though we are not aware of it. Cell phone technology, computer technology it all involves vacuum technology to some level. And if it’s going to keep growing and being part of our lives then someone’s got to be there to operate and maintain the equipment.”

Demand for vacuum technicians is particularly high in Silicon Valley, which is not far from LLNL in Northern California. (See our next blog for Chesser’s comments about the skills he looks for when hiring entry-level vacuum technicians.)

At LLNL Correa Barrios designs, builds, operates, and maintains vacuum systems that take air and gas contaminants out of stainless steel vessels to create sterile environments. The empty vessels are back filled with ionized argon, which bombards the metals placed in the vessels and results in physical vapor deposition on items. The process of depositing thin films, also known as sputtering, can take just a few minutes or a few days depending on the thickness of the deposition.

“Some of these films are so thin, so small – tens to hundreds of angstroms thick so we’ve got to be as precise as we can….If the tool is off, if the sensor cannot read accurately what the deposition rate is, we can be way off on our film thicknesses. Even the quality of the film is compromised if the equipment isn’t reading right. If an experiment doesn’t go well – they don’t get the data they need and it pinpoints to a bad film that we made, yes, that’s money lost,” he explained.

How He Got Started

In high school Correa Barrios liked drafting. “I wanted to do something more artistic but not art. Drafting was kind of that medium.”

His first job was as a draftsman for L&P Machine, a machine shop where he learned to use every machine on the shop floor and how fabrication processes worked. His second job was with Pak-Master, an engineering firm that designed automated packaging equipment. There Correa Barrios learned the automation side of fabrication and manufacturing.

For five years he worked full time and attended classes part time at San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton, California.

“For me, academics weren’t my strongest suit, or it wasn’t a top priority,” he said, adding he preferred the “distraction” of the new equipment on the machine shop floor. “At the machine shop there were all these new machines and processes that I wanted to know. And I wanted to know them all. So I would just devote as much time as I could to learning manufacturing and [would] try do school work when I could.

“When I worked for the engineer doing automated equipment, I tried to learn as much from him as I could. So I was always trying to learn what I could, but my actual, true academics was kind of pushed off to the side.”

After completing his associate degree in 2010 he continued taking courses toward a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. One of his professors suggested he apply for an internship at LLNL.

The internship led to a contractor position at the LLNL, and then a full-time job. Correa Barrios liked the hands-on work he saw technicians doing at the lab and set aside his baccalaureate engineering degree plans. “I don’t like to do one thing repetitively all the time, and what appealed to me was being able to design something, being able to manufacture it myself, and implementing it, and working with the engineers and scientists to create novel solutions.”

How the Certificate in Vacuum Technology Accelerated His Career   

In 2016 Correa Barrios was offered a technician job in the Advanced Coating and Vacuum Process Lab because of the breadth of his skills, Chesser said.

He took the vac tech courses from Normandale during work days in 2017 and 2018; LLNL covered the tuition and textbook costs. Correa Barrios said that before he enrolled in the certificate program he operated the vacuum systems as he had been told to do by supervisors without fully understanding the technology.

He said the Normandale courses “gave me the foundations for what I was doing. You know because at work we don’t necessarily have time to dig deep into the math behind how fast the pump can pump down a specific volume or the conductance lost between tubes, between pipes. We learned the foundations in that class and it definitely helped me understand it a lot better.”

He has found the troubleshooting skills he learned to be particularly helpful. “It definitely gave me the skills I needed to push myself to the next level. It helped me move up,” he said.

Chesser describes what sets Correa Barrios apart this way:

“With all the things that he has in his toolbox, he can speak with the customer; go over what they want to do. Let’s say they need a fixture remade. He can design the fixture because he has Solid Works experience. Now he can make the print. Because he also has machine shop skills, then he can go in the machine shop and fabricate that fixture…If the part needs to be welded he can do that, he has welding skills.”

He has witnessed Correa Barrios explain his calculations to engineers, as well as troubleshoot and repair vacuum systems.

“He can do from start to finish,” Chesser said.


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