From the outside, it looks like a normal office building with lots of glass and steel, but this factory in the Netherlands is owned by ASML and makes machines that are anything but normal.
The technology is so advanced and popular that ASML has become Europe’s most valuable technology company.
So, what’s the point?
ASML makes more than just machines; it also makes the machines that make computer chips.
ASML is the sole company in the world with the technology to make computer chips that are the most advanced.
ASML has some of the most strict corporate security in the world regarding how its machines work because it has a monopoly.
Still, we were shown what we needed to know and shown around the plant.
Small electrical switches called transistors are built layer by layer on a piece of silicon called a wafer. This is how they make microchips.
Using a lithography system, light is shined through a blueprint of the pattern of these small switches to print them.
Advanced optics are used to shrink and focus the light, and the pattern is then cut into a photosensitive silicon wafer.
This pattern is what makes up the wiring in a silicon chip. So that chip could end up in a computer, a phone, or any other electronic device you can think of.
The most important thing about ASML’s most advanced machines is that they can work on very small scales by making only 13.5 nanometers wide light.
Sander Hofman from ASML compares it to using different-tipped pens: “Because the wavelength is small, you use a fine liner to draw lines of integrated circuitry, while older machines might use a marker pen.”
Because you can etch such fine circuits into silicon, you can fit more parts into it. This means that computers and other electronic devices can have more memory and processing power without getting bigger.
The machines work in a vacuum because even a small piece of skin can mess up the process of etching a chip.
When we went to the factory, a technician named Bram Matthijssen assembled one of ASML’s new designs. Mr. Matthijssen works in the cleanest place on the planet.
“Sometimes we have to wear gloves on top of gloves to ensure we don’t leave fingerprints on the machine or bring more dust into it.”
“A single fingerprint… can do a lot of damage to the machine,” he says.
The machines are big and need help to figure out. Building and shipping one extreme ultraviolet (EUV) machine can take a year.
Only 50 of the company’s most expensive model and 400 of its other machines were sold last year.
Last year, the company made 21.2 billion euros ($22.7 billion; £18.9 billion) from these sales and from running and improving the machines it already had.
The orders they already have are worth twice as much. Since last year, the number of employees has grown by a third. This is because sales have gone up.
Wayne Lam, a consultant for the technology research firm CCS Insights, says that it takes years, if not decades, for ASML to develop and perfect the machines it makes.
ASML has been making its most advanced machines since the early 2000s. However, other companies in the same field now have much work to do to catch up.
He says, “I’m sure there are rivals in the works, but ASML doesn’t have a real rival right now.”
Not bad for a company that the BBC once called “relatively obscure.” Mr. Hoffman put that quote on a hoodie.
Being such an important part of the global electronics business can be hard.
ASML is caught in the middle of a chip war
China has tried for a long time to make the most advanced computer chips. It needs machines made by ASML to do this.
But the US has made it harder for ASML to sell these machines in China since 2019.
Joris Teer, a strategic analyst at The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, says the US doesn’t want China to catch up to them in chip technology.
He said that the US used to want to be a couple of generations ahead of its rivals, but now it wants to be as far ahead as possible. This can also mean you want to get as far ahead of your opponents as possible.
There have been rumors that the Dutch and US governments have made a deal about ASML exports, but the details have yet to be made public.
In a statement about the news, ASML said that any restrictions would need to be worked on for a long time before they could become law.
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The CEO of ASML, Peter Wennink, thinks that export restrictions will benefit his company in the long run.