How ASML Became Europe’s Most Valuable Technology Company

  • Written by Carmel O’Grady and Matthew Kenyon
  • The daily business

image source, Getty Images

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The factory where ASML makes the machines that print the world’s most expensive computer chips

From the outside it looks like an ordinary corporate building, lots of glass and steel, but this factory in South Holland belongs to ASML, and the machines made there are anything but ordinary.

ASML designs and builds the machines that make computer chips – but not any old computer chips.

ASML Machinery makes the most advanced computer chips and is the only company in the world that has this kind of technology.

This effective monopoly means that the way ASML machines operate is subject to some of the most stringent corporate security in the world.

However, we were given a tour of his factory, and guided through the basics.

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This illustration shows the complex interior of the ASML EUV device – the intense ultraviolet light is purple

Microchips are made by building intricate patterns of transistors, or miniature switches, layer by layer, on a silicon wafer.

They are printed using a system of lithography, in which light projects through an outline of the pattern of those miniature keys.

The light is then reduced and focused using advanced optics and the pattern is etched onto a light-sensitive silicon wafer.

This pattern makes up the circuitry of the silicon chip, which might end up in your computer, phone, or other electrical device you might care to mention.

ASML’s Sander Hofman likens it to using different-tip pens: “Because of the small wavelength, it means you’re basically using a fine liner to draw these lines of integrated circuits — as opposed to maybe older generation machines using a marker.”

The ability to etch silicon with such microcircuits means you can cram more components onto the silicon, which in turn means electronic devices can have more processing power and more memory while maintaining the same size.

The machines operate in a vacuum, where the wafer-engraving process can be derailed by the tiniest of impurities – such as rogue skin particles.

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One of the cleanest work environments in the world where rogue fingerprints are costly

Technician Bram Matthijssen was putting together one of ASML’s latest designs when we visited the factory. Mr. Matthijssen works in one of the cleanest environments on the planet.

“There are moments when we have to wear gloves over gloves to make sure we don’t leave any fingerprints, to make sure we don’t get any extra dust into the device.

“One single fingerprint … can do a lot of damage to the machine,” he says.

The machines themselves are very large and complex. One EUV machine can take a year to be assembled and delivered.

Last year, the company delivered just 50 of the highest specification models and 400 machines in all.

Those sales, plus income from managing and upgrading existing machinery, made the company €21.2 billion ($22.7 billion; £18.9 billion) last year.

The machines ASML makes take years, if not decades, to develop and perfect, says Wayne Lamm, a consultant at technology research firm CCS Insights.

ASML has been working on its top-spec machines since the early 2000’s, which leaves other companies in the field with a great deal of catching up.

“I’m sure there are competitors in the works… However, in the near term, there isn’t any real competitor to ASML,” he says.

Not bad for a company the BBC once described as “relatively obscure,” the quote Hoffmann printed on his hoodie.

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We bring it back

Being a critical cog in the global electronics industry comes with some difficulties.

ASML currently finds itself caught up in the rivalry between the United States and China.

China has always wanted to make the most advanced computer chips, for which it needs ASML machines.

Joris Terre, a strategist at The Hague Center for Strategic Studies, says the US is keen to prevent China from catching up in chip technology.

“The US has moved its objectives, from having two generations of advantage over its competitors, to having to maintain as much of the lead as possible — which may also mean that you have to push back your competitors as far as possible,” he says. .

In the long run, ASML CEO Peter Wenink doesn’t think his company will be hit hard by the export restrictions.

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