- By Carmel O’Grady & Matthew Kenyon
- Daily business
From the outside, it looks like an ordinary company building, with lots of glass and steel, but this factory in the south of the Netherlands is owned by ASML, and the machines built there are no different. What’s normal?
ASML designs and builds machines that make computer chips – but not just any old computer chips.
ASML machines make the most advanced computer chips and it is the only company in the world with that kind of technology.
This effective monopoly means that the exact way ASML machines operate is subject to some of the strictest corporate security measures in the world.
However, we were taken on a tour of the factory and taught the basics.
Microchips are made by building complex patterns of transistors or miniature electrical switches, layer by layer, on a silicon wafer.
They are printed using a lithography system in which light is shined through a model design of those miniature switches.
The light is then miniaturized and focused using advanced optics and the pattern is etched onto a photosensitive silicon wafer.
That pattern forms the circuit of a silicon chip, which can be used in computers, phones, or any other electrical device you might want to talk about.
The key aspect of ASML’s most advanced machines is that they can operate at an extremely small scale by generating extremely fine ultraviolet light – just 13.5 nanometers.
Sander Hofman from ASML likens this to using a pen with different tips: “Because of the small wavelength, it means you’re essentially using a thin liner to draw these integrated circuit lines – older generation machines can use markers instead.”
The ability to etch silicon with such fine circuits means you can cram more components into silicon, which in turn means electronics can have more processing power and more memory in them. while maintaining the same size.
The machines operate in a vacuum, as the entire chip-etching process can be derailed by the smallest impurities – like a grain of fake leather.
Technician Bram Matthijssen was putting the finishing touches on one of ASML’s newest designs when we visited the factory. Mr. Matthijssen works in one of the cleanest environments on the planet.
“There are times when we have to wear gloves over gloves to make sure we don’t leave fingerprints, to make sure we don’t bring more dust into the machine.
“A single fingerprint… can cause significant damage to the machine,” he said.
The machines themselves are important and complex. An extreme ultraviolet (EUV) machine can take a year to assemble and deliver.
Last year, the company only delivered 50 models with the highest specifications and a total of 400 machines.
Those sales, plus income from managing and upgrading existing machinery, earned the company 21.2 billion euros ($22.7 billion; £18.9 billion) last year. .
The orders they are filling are worth twice that amount. Growth in sales means the workforce is growing, growing by a third in the past 12 months.
Wayne Lam, a consultant with technology research firm CCS Insights, said ASML-built machines take years, if not decades, to develop and perfect.
ASML has been working on top-spec machines since the early 2000s, leaving other companies in the field with quite a bit of work to do.
“I am sure there are competitors in the works… however, in the near term there will be no real competition to ASML,” he said.
Not bad for a company once described by the BBC as “relatively obscure”, a quote Mr Hofman printed on a hoodie.
Becoming a vital cog in the global electronics industry will be difficult.
ASML is currently caught up in the rivalry between the US and China.
China has long wanted to produce the most advanced computer chips, and it needs ASML machines to do that.
Joris Teer, a strategic analyst at The Hague Center for Strategic Studies, said the US really wants to prevent China from catching up with chip technology.
“America has shifted its focus from having an advantage over its adversaries for generations to us having to maintain as big a lead as possible – which also means you have to Push your opponent back as far as possible.” .
In the long term, ASML chief executive Peter Wennink does not expect his business to be severely affected by export restrictions.
“If semiconductors cannot be made in China, they will be made in China [South] Korea, in America or in Europe or in Taiwan. So we will eventually ship those machines because the world needs that capacity,” he said.