Created in 1984 by electronics giant Philips and another toolmaker, ASML became an independent company and by far the largest supplier of chip-making equipment.
San Francisco: President Joe Biden and many lawmakers in Washington these days are concerned about computer chips and China’s ambitions for fundamental technology.
But a huge machine sold by a Dutch company has emerged as a key lever for policymakers, illustrating how any country’s hopes of building a completely self-sufficient supply chain in semiconductor technology are unrealistic.
The machine is manufactured by ASML Holding, based in Veldhoven. His system uses a different type of light to define ultra-small circuits in chips, packing more performance into the tiny bits of silicon. The tool, which took decades to develop and was introduced for high-volume manufacturing in 2017, costs more than $ 150 million. Shipping it to customers requires 40 shipping containers, 20 trucks, and three Boeing 747s.
The complex machine is widely recognized as necessary to make the most advanced chips, a skill with geopolitical implications. The Trump administration successfully lobbied the Dutch government to block shipments of such a machine to China in 2019, and the Biden administration has shown no signs of reversing that stance.
Manufacturers cannot produce state-of-the-art chips without the system, and “it is only made by the Dutch firm ASML,” said Will Hunt, a research analyst at Georgetown University’s Center for Emerging Technology and Security, who concluded that it would be needed. China at least a decade to build its own similar equipment. “From China’s perspective, that’s frustrating.”
The ASML machine has effectively become a bottleneck in the supply chain of chips, which act as the brains of computers and other digital devices. The development and production of the tool on three continents, using experience and parts from Japan, the United States and Germany, is also a reminder of how global the supply chain is, providing a reality check for any country that wants to give a leap forward in semiconductors to itself.
That includes not just China, but also the United States, where Congress is debating plans to spend more than $ 50 billion to reduce reliance on foreign chipmakers. Many branches of the federal government, particularly the Pentagon, have been concerned about the United States’ dependence on Taiwan’s leading chipmaker and the island’s proximity to China.
A study conducted last spring by the Boston Consulting Group and the Semiconductor Industry Association estimated that creating a self-sufficient chip supply chain would require at least $ 1 trillion and dramatically increase the prices of chips and products made from them.
That goal is “completely unrealistic” for anyone, said Willy Shih, a management professor at Harvard Business School who studies supply chains. ASML technology “is a great example of why it has global commerce.”
The situation underscores the crucial role played by ASML, a once-unknown company whose market value now exceeds $ 285 billion. It’s “the biggest company you’ve ever heard of,” said Evercore ISI analyst CJ Muse.
Created in 1984 by electronics giant Philips and another toolmaker, Advanced Semiconductor Materials International, ASML became an independent company and by far the largest supplier of chip-making equipment involving a process called lithography.
Using lithography, manufacturers repeatedly project chip circuit patterns onto silicon wafers. The smaller transistors and other components that can be added to an individual chip, the more powerful it becomes and the more data it can store. The pace of that miniaturization is known as Moore’s Law, named after Gordon Moore, a co-founder of chip giant Intel.
In 1997, ASML began studying a shift toward the use of extreme ultraviolet light, or EUV. Such light has ultra-small wavelengths that can create much smaller circuits than is possible with conventional lithography. Later, the company decided to build machines based on the technology, an effort that has cost $ 8 billion since the late 1990s.
The development process quickly went global. ASML now assembles the advanced machines using mirrors from Germany and hardware developed in San Diego that generates light by shooting tin drops with a laser. The key chemicals and components come from Japan.
Peter Wennink, ASML CEO, said a lack of money in the company’s early years had led it to integrate inventions from specialized vendors, creating what he calls a “collaborative knowledge network” that innovates rapidly.
“We were forced not to do ourselves what other people do best,” he said.
ASML relied on other international cooperation. In the early 1980s, researchers in the United States, Japan, and Europe began to consider the radical change in light sources. The concept was adopted by a consortium that included Intel and two other US chipmakers, as well as Department of Energy labs.
ASML was incorporated in 1999 after more than a year of negotiations, said Martin van den Brink, ASML president and chief technology officer. Other partners of the company were the Imec research center in Belgium and another US consortium, Sematech. Subsequently, ASML attracted large investments from Intel, Samsung Electronics, and the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company to help finance the development.
That development was made more complicated by the peculiarities of the EUV light. Lithography machines generally focus light through lenses to project circuit patterns onto wafers. But the small EUV wavelengths are absorbed by the glass, so the lenses don’t work. Mirrors, another common tool for direct light, have the same problem. That meant that the new lithography required mirrors with complex coatings that were combined to better reflect the small wavelengths.
So ASML turned to Zeiss Group, a 175-year-old German optics company and long-time partner. Their contributions included a 2-ton projection system to handle EUV light, with six specially shaped mirrors that are ground, polished and coated over several months in an elaborate robotic process that uses ion beams to remove defects.
Generating enough light to project images quickly also caused delays, van den Brink said. But Cymer, a San Diego company that ASML bought in 2013, finally improved a system that directs the pulses of a high-powered laser to hit tin droplets 50,000 times per second, once to flatten them and a second to vaporize them, to create bright light.
The new system also required redesigned components called photomasks, which act as templates in projected circuit designs, as well as new chemicals deposited on wafers that generate those images when exposed to light. Japanese companies now supply most of these products.
Since ASML introduced its commercial EUV model in 2017, customers have purchased around 100 of them. Buyers include Samsung and TSMC, the largest production service for chips designed by other companies. TSMC uses the tool to make Apple-designed processors for its latest iPhones. Intel and IBM have said that EUV is crucial to their plans.
“It’s definitely the most complicated machine humans have ever built,” said Darío Gil, IBM’s senior vice president.
The Dutch restrictions on the export of such machines to China, which have been in place since 2019, have not had much financial impact on ASML as it has a backlog of orders from other countries. But about 15 percent of the company’s sales come from selling older systems in China.
In a final report to Congress and Biden in March, the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence proposed extending export controls to some other advanced ASML machines. The group, funded by Congress, seeks to limit advances in artificial intelligence with military applications.
Hunt and other policy experts argued that since China was already using those machines, blocking additional sales would hurt ASML without many strategic benefits. The company too.
“I hope common sense prevails,” van den Brink said.
Don Clark c.2021 The New York Times Company
This article originally appeared on The New York Times.