SAN FRANCISCO – President Biden and many lawmakers in Washington these days are worried about computer chips and China’s ambitions with platform technology.
But a giant machine sold by a Dutch company has emerged as an important lever for policymakers – and exemplifies the hope of building a fully self-sufficient supply chain. in the semiconductor technology of any country is a fantasy.
The machine is manufactured by ASML Holding, based in Veldhoven. Its system uses a different kind of light to identify microchips on a chip, packing higher performance into tiny silicon wafers. The tool, which took decades to develop and was introduced to mass production in 2017, costs more than $150 million. To ship it to the customer needed 40 shipping containers, 20 trucks and three Boeing 747s.
The complex machine is widely acknowledged as necessary to make the most advanced chips, a capability that has 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 shows no sign of reversing that stance.
“Manufacturers can’t make the most advanced chips without this system,” said Will Hunt, a research analyst at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technologies. manufactured by the Dutch company ASML”. its own analog device for a decade. “From China’s point of view, it’s a disappointment.”
ASML’s machine has become a bottleneck in the chip supply chain, acting as the brains of computers and other digital devices. The tool’s development and production on three continents – using expertise and parts from Japan, the United States and Germany – is also a reminder of how global that supply chain is, providing a reality check for any country that wants to get ahead in the semiconductor field by itself.
That includes not only China but also the United States, where Congress is debating a plan to spend more than $50 billion to reduce dependence on foreign chipmakers. Many branches of the federal government, especially the Pentagon, have worried about America’s reliance on Taiwan’s top chipmaker and the island’s proximity to China.
A study this spring by the Boston Consulting Group and the Semiconductor Industry Association estimated that creating a self-sufficient chip supply chain would cost at least $1 trillion and drive up prices sharply. to chips and products made from them.
Willy Shih, a management professor at Harvard Business School who studies supply chains, said that goal is “completely unrealistic” for anyone. ASML’s technology “is a great example of why you have global trade.”
The situation underscores the important role ASML plays, a once obscure company with a market value that now exceeds $285 billion. CJ Muse, an analyst with Evercore ISI, said it was “the most important company you’ve never heard of.
Founded in 1984 by electronics giant Philips and another tool manufacturer, Advanced Semiconductor Materials International, ASML has become an independent company and is by far the largest supplier of Chip manufacturing equipment involves a process called lithography.
Using lithography, manufacturers continuously project chip circuit samples onto silicon wafers. The more small transistors and other components that can be added to an individual chip, the more powerful it becomes and the more data it can store. That miniaturization speed is known as Moore’s Law, named after Gordon Moore, the co-founder of chip giant Intel.
In 1997, ASML began to study the use of ultraviolet, or EUV, light. Such light has a microscopic wavelength that can create circuits much smaller than is possible with conventional lithography. The company then decided to build machines based on this technology, an endeavor that has cost $8 billion since the late 1990s.
The development quickly spread globally. ASML is currently assembling state-of-the-art machines using mirrors from Germany and hardware developed in San Diego that generate light by firing tin droplets with a laser. The main ingredients and chemicals come from Japan.
Peter Wennink, ASML’s chief executive, said a lack of money in the company’s early years led the company to integrate inventions from ad-hoc suppliers, creating what he calls a “knowledge network” cooperative mode” capable of rapid innovation.
“We’re forced to not do what others do better on our own,” he said.
ASML is built on the basis of other international cooperation. In the early 1980s, researchers in the United States, Japan, and Europe began to look at the radical variation of light sources. The idea was put forward by a consortium that includes Intel and two other US chipmakers, as well as Department of Energy laboratories.
Martin van den Brink, president and chief technology officer of ASML, said ASML joined in 1999 after more than a year of negotiations. The company’s other partners include the Imec research center in Belgium and another US consortium, Sematech. ASML then attracted major investments from Intel, Samsung Electronics and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company to help finance the development.
That development is further complicated by the oddities of ultraviolet light. The lithographer typically focuses light through a lens to project the circuit patterns onto the wafer. But the small EUV wavelengths are absorbed by the glass, so the lens won’t work. Mirrors, another popular tool for directing light, have a similar problem. That means the new lithography requires mirrors with a composite coating that work together to better reflect small wavelengths.
So ASML turned to Zeiss Group, a 175 year old German optics company and longtime partner. Its contributions include a two-ton projection system for ultraviolet light treatment, with six specially shaped mirrors that were ground, polished and coated over several months in an elaborate robotic process using ion beam to eliminate defects.
Mr van den Brink said creating enough light to project the image quickly also caused delays. But Cymer, a San Diego company that ASML acquired in 2013, has finally refined a system that directs pulses from a high-powered laser to tin droplets 50,000 times a second – once to flatten them. and a second time vaporizing them – to create intense light.
The new system also requires redesigned components called photomasks, which act like stencils in the design of projection circuits, as well as new chemicals deposited on the wafer creating those images upon contact. with light. Japanese companies now supply most of those products.
Since ASML introduced its commercial EUV model in 2017, customers have purchased about 100 of them. Buyers include Samsung and TSMC, the largest chip manufacturing service designed by other companies. TSMC uses this tool to create Apple-designed microprocessors for its latest iPhones. Intel and IBM have said the EUV is crucial to their plans.
“It’s certainly the most complex machine man has ever built,” said Darío Gil, senior vice president at IBM.
Dutch restrictions on the export of such machinery to China, which have been in place since 2019, do not have much financial impact on ASML as it has a backlog of orders from other countries. But about 15% of the company’s revenue comes from selling older systems in China.
In its final report to Congress and Mr. Biden in March, the National Security Committee on Artificial Intelligence proposed expanding export controls to a number of other advanced ASMLs. even machines. The group, funded by Congress, seeks to limit the advancements of artificial intelligence to military applications.
Mr. Hunt and other policy experts argue that since China already uses these machines, blocking further sales would hurt ASML without much strategic benefit. So does the company.
Mr van den Brink said: “I expect common sense to prevail.