In this series of ai.nl, we feature the most promising AI companies in the world: where do they come from, what have they achieved and what are their plans for the future. In this episode, we are looking at ASML, a Dutch pioneer in the field of lithography and semiconductor industry.
On September 14, 2021, Apple announced its new iPhone lineup powered by the A15 Bionic chip based on TSMC’s new 4nm fabrication process. The announcement marked a new frontier for companies trying to squeeze out as much performance as possible from a small silicon architecture. While Apple and TSMC were the heroes in that announcement, ASML was the hero not many knew or spoke about at that time.
Manufacturing a semiconductor chip is arguably one of the most complex things in the world and one that shows the technical advancement in the field of physics, computer science, and manufacturing. Standing for “Advanced Semiconductor Materials Lithography,” ASML, as it widely known, is a Dutch pioneer specialising in the development and manufacturing of photolithography systems used to produce computer chips.
A humble beginning for a semiconductor leader
ASML was founded in 1984 as a joint venture between the Dutch companies Advanced Semiconductor Materials International (ASMI) and Philips. It was originally named as ASM Lithography but now it goes by its current name of ASML. The joint venture was essentially a bet on the semiconductor industry becoming as big as it is right now.
It is difficult to explain the necessity or importance of semiconductors but one can try by pointing at the impact semiconductor shortage had on the automotive industry. As a global supply chain, the pandemic showed how disruption in one country could adversely affect companies in another.
Automotive brands suffered due to short supply of semiconductors due to the pandemic. It was also a realisation for the entire world how dependent we had become on semiconductors. For example, companies like Tesla and Apple, which navigated semiconductor supply woes better than others, were awarded greatly by investors.
It might shock the readers to know that ASML, a company playing a key role in making of these semiconductor chips, began in a leaky shed next to a Philips office in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. ASMI built on its R&D efforts from the early 1970s and introduced its first system called the PAS 2000 stepper.
The very first system was a sign that ASML was set for major achievements and both Philips and ASMI began scaling their investments. It has grown to become such a major player in the semiconductor industry that it boldly calls itself “the most important tech company you’ve never heard of.”
At the time of writing, ASML counts 32,016 people as its full-time employees who are spread across more than 60 locations and represent 122 nationalities.
ASML currently offers the lithography machines that form the backbone of chip making at fabrication companies. These lithography machines are not only essential but also in short supply. The crunch is so big that companies don’t hesitate from purchasing second hand lithography machines. In fact, the original PAS 2000 stepper is still in use.
At present, ASML offers its clients EUV lithography systems and DUV lithography systems. These two systems form the basis of the microchip and the extreme ultraviolet lithography system is, in fact, pushing Moore’s law forward. The idea that the number of transistors in a sense integrated circuit (IC) doubles about every two years seems ancient at times due to the advancement in lithography and the ability of chip companies to pack more transistors than previously possible, all without compromising on efficiency.
ASML: key members
- Peter Wennink (President and CEO)
- Martin van den Brink (President and CTO)
- Roger Dassen (Executive Vice President and CFO)
- Christophe Fouquet (Executive Vice President EUV)
- Frédéric Schneider-Manoury (Executive VP and CCO)
- Gerard Kleisterlee (Chair of the Supervisory Board)
- Annet Aris (Vice Chair of the Supervisory Board)
- Birgit Conix (Member of the Audit Committee)
- Mark Durcan (Chair of the Technology Committee, Member of the Selection and Nomination Committee)
- Warren East (Member of the Audit Committee)
- Alexander Evarke (Member of the Remuneration Committee)
- Terri Kelly (Chair of the Remuneration Committee, Member of the Selection and Nomination Committee)
- Rolf-Dieter Schwalb (Chair of the Audit Committee, Member of the Remuneration Committee)
- An Steegen (Member of the Technology Committee)
ASML: journey through the decades
- 1980s: ASML gets a humble beginning through a joint venture between Philips and ASMI. It initially operates from a shed next to a Philips office in Eindhoven
- 1990s: ASML’s weathers all the challenges, including retreat from the US to secure a helping hand from Philips board members, and then went for an IPO. It is listed on the Amsterdam and New York stock exchanges.
- 2000s: ASML introduces TWINSCAN system and its immersion technology which exposes one wafer while the next wafer is being measured and aligned, maximising productivity and accuracy of the system.
- 2010s: The biggest technological achievement from ASML came in 2010 when the company shipped its first prototype Extreme Ultraviolet (EUV) lithography tool to the research facility of an Asian chipmaker. The EUV began a new era in lithography and ASML capitalised on its work by acquiring Cymer in 2013 and Hermes Microvision (HMI) IN 2016.
- 2020s: EUV entered high volume manufacturing and ASML shipped its 100th EUV system. This came amidst the pandemic-induced lockdown and also completed acquisition of Berliner Glas Group in November 2020.
ASML: betting big on a tiny future
ASML is a giant in the semiconductor industry and has become an indispensable force when it comes to making chips that are found in everything from phones and laptops to cars and AI. However, the future of ASML is one where it needs to think really small to achieve even bigger ambitions. With a growth of nearly 1,000 per cent in the past decade, it seems even investors are excited about the future of lithography with ASML at the wheel.
According to Reuters, ASML is currently building machines that weigh over 200 tonnes and are of the size of double decker buses. These machines are being built to produce beams of focussed light capable of creating the microscopic circuitry on computer chips.
These machines are expected to cost nearly $400M when they roll out of the factory and ASML expects it to be its flagship by late 2020s despite all the engineering challenges associated with the machine. The prototype is said to be completed in the first half of 2023 and the machine will be in Dutch town of Veldhoven for its clients to see and understand its potential before writing a cheque for $400M or higher.
This new machine from ASML is expected to be based on a new technology called the “High-NA” version of EUV, which could allow the next generation for silicon fabrication. The technology and the development of this machine is essential for chipmakers like Intel, Samsung, TSMC, and others to build their next generation of dense chipsets with very high power efficiency.
Lithography determines how small of a circuitry on a chip can get and High-NA is promising reduction of 66 per cent. In the semiconductor world, smaller is always considered to be better and companies love to pack more transistors in the same space, which leads to a chip that is faster and energy efficient.
The success of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company is mainly on the back of its decision to incorporate ASML’s EUV machine in the 2010s. TSMC is now one of the most sought after fab players and counts the likes of Apple, Qualcomm, AMD, and others among its customers.
If ASML fails to build its next generation lithography machine then it will also impact the likes of TSMC, Intel, Samsung, and others. The inability to make chips smaller and able to pack more transistors affects the entire semiconductor industry, from the companies that use these chips to the ones who make them. ASML is at the centre of this semiconductor maze with its machines accounting for more than 90 per cent market share.
In order to ensure that it doesn’t fail, ASML is relying extensively on artificial intelligence, deep learning, and machine learning. In an episode of OnAir Talkshow, Arnaud Hubaux, Product Cluster Manager at ASML, told Remy Gieling, founder of ai.nl, that the company is looking at human implement of artificial intelligence. Hubaux first wants to solve the problem of AI not being good in the manufacturing industry before using AI to ensure that the its ASML machines are good at doing what they are designed to do.
If in late 2020s, you see chipsets that are smaller and yet able to pack more transistors and deliver greater efficiency, then it would mean ASML has once again succeeded in its lithography machine roadmap. However, if it fails then there is no alternative with Japanese players Nikon and Canon having restricted themselves to older technology.
Photo: James zhan / Flickr
What to read next?
- ✏️NVIDIA wants to be a platform player and not just GPU vendor: a look at its history, key members, and major achievements
- 🤗Hugging Face wants to be GitHub of machine learning: a look at its history, key members, and major achievements
- 🧠Digital Transformation: what is it and the role of AI in digital transformation