ASML Holding NV is laying out more resources on its San Diego operation, four years after buying Rancho Bernardo-based Cymer Inc. for $3.7 billion.
The $7 billion Dutch corporation also seems to be cementing its commitment to San Diego.
ASML is methodically upgrading Cymer’s factory on Thornmint Court, investing tens of millions of dollars for each phase of the improvements. Its San Diego headcount has climbed 24.5 percent since the 2013 acquisition, to 1,210 employees. The business recently leased 62,000 square feet of space near Interstate 15, bringing its total San Diego floor space to more than 566,000 square feet.
Company officials say that it’s part of ASML’s overall strategy to drive revenue to $11.4 billion (10 billion Euros) by 2020. The San Diego business makes major equipment for factories that produce microchips, and services an installed base of machines. The business has shipped more than 4,000 light sources in the last 30 years. Customers include Intel Corp., Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Ltd. and Samsung.
The Rancho Bernardo plant used to make entire laser light sources for microchip manufacturing, but now ASML sends components to the Netherlands for final systems integration.
A recent tour of the Rancho Bernardo buildings showed facilities for testing light sources — highly technical lasers and associated machinery that are collectively about as big as automobiles and carry price tags in the tens of millions of dollars.
A new model costs more than $100 million.
Company representatives also showed off a highly automated assembly line for a key piece of equipment called a droplet generator.
For the employees, the business recently built a 10,000-square-foot food court.
Moore’s Law Lives
ASML offers two technologies, called DUV and EUV for short.
The company’s long-established technology creates deep ultraviolet light (DUV) with a wavelength of 193 nanometers. Forty percent of ASML’s San Diego workforce is devoted to that technology.
One group of San Diego engineers works to make its DUV light sources more reliable, with more working time between maintenance periods. Because semiconductor factories — or fabs — are so expensive to build, manufacturers try to wring the maximum productivity from their assets.
Semiconductor manufacturers are packing more transistors — and more capability — into ever smaller packages. Moore’s Law states the number of transistors per square inch of microchip doubles roughly every two years.
Today’s state-of-the-art microchips (such as Qualcomm Inc.’s Snapdragon 835) have circuits 10 nanometers wide. Chip makers plan to make products with finer lines — 7 nanometers wide — in the near future.
Dimensions are expected to shrink to 5, then 3, then 2 and then 1 nanometer. Pundits occasionally claim that Moore’s Law is dead. ASML executive David Knowles asserts that it has at least 10 years of life left in it.
Chips are made in a process similar to that of a 20th century photography darkroom. In the old school way of making prints, a technician shone a light through a photograph negative, exposing special paper.
In the simplest of terms, a laser light in the chip-making factory shines through a negative-like mask — Knowles compares it to a roadmap of Los Angeles — which creates the electrical pathways on the chip. The microchips have many layers, from subway to skyscraper, added Knowles, vice president of product development at the San Diego office.
250 Watts From EUV Technology
To get to tinier circuits, engineers have to solve several problems.
The rule of thumb is that shorter wavelengths of light can create tinier circuits, which brings us to ASML’s upand-coming technology. It emits extreme ultraviolet (EUV) light with a wavelength of 13½ nanometers — something close to an X-ray.
ASML officials say that within the last month, company engineers attained the longsought goal of 250 watts from their EUV technology.
“It’s a holy grail,” said Mathew Abraham, senior director of EUV technology function at ASML.
That output, up from about 50 watts in 2013, will let fabs expose 125 silicon wafers per hour. Each wafer contains hundreds of microchips.
The business also said it achieved 90 percent availability on one EUV system over four weeks in the fall, up from 80 percent uptime on five machines earlier in 2016.
In the near future, ASML said it hopes to deliver greater than 90 percent uptime while processing in excess of 125 wafers per hour. Its ultimate goal is to have the productivity and availability of the more-established DUV machines, Abraham said.
ASML is also working to deliver ontime shipments in sufficient volume. Its goal is to support a larger installed base.
The company’s backlog now includes 21 EUV systems and it expects more orders before the year is over.
Analyst Robert Maire said that EUV technology is by no means mature. Uptime on EUV systems is not up to par for the industry, said Maire, president of Semiconductor Advisors LLC of New York.
Various components of the photographic process — including masks and photo resist — need more development, the analyst said. On top of that, there is not yet a good way to inspect a negative for flaws, meaning that fabs using EUV technology don’t get a chance to test a chip for defects until it is finished. That is about as inefficient, he said, as an automaker making its first test of a finished car after it has been driven off the assembly line.
The analyst also noted problems in the laser light source. As part of the process, a high-powered laser hits tin droplets to create the short-wavelength light. That creates debris which can adhere to the machine’s mirrors, which direct the light into the scanner. Maire spoke of factory technicians having to remove mirrors periodically to clean them.
ASML executives, however, said there is growing support and interest in EUV — particularly since 2016. ASML’s list price for its EUV scanner is more than 100 million Euros (greater than $114 million, at the current exchange rate). A Japanese company, Gigaphoton, also sees potential; it is at work on EUV technology as well.
EUV is “basically on everybody’s roadmap,” said Dan Hutcheson, CEO of VLSI Research Inc. of San Jose.
Looking back to the ASML acquisition four years ago, Hutcheson said ASML needed Cymer for its EUV technology. Meanwhile, Cymer was having trouble staying in the research and development game; shareholders were pressuring the publicly traded company to cut its R&D.
“Like most good marriages, both needed each other,” he said.
Today, the Thornmint Court factory designs and manufactures a component called a droplet generator, a unit the size of a particularly tall fire hydrant, which spews 50,000 incredibly small droplets of tin every second.
A laser hitting those tin droplets creates the needed 13½ nanometer wavelength of light.
Operations director Jim Love explained the process on the factory tour.
An initial laser pulse flattens a tin droplet like a pancake. A second pulse is much harder — Love smacked his cupped hand with a fist to illustrate — creating the extreme ultraviolet light, which is routed through mirrors to the chip-making unit at the factory.
ASML declined to share photos of the machine, saying the design is proprietary. But it’s proud of the San Diego product.
“The droplet generator could have been the Achilles’ heel of the entire machine,” Abraham said. Now in its third generation, however, that subassembly is “much more robust.”
Is EUV as good as DUV? Not yet. But ASML is pouring resources into that challenge.
Hutcheson said he has been following the development of EUV since a theoretical presentation he saw in 1988. Bringing it into a production line, to a state where it will run 24 hours a day and seven days a week, will take a lot of work and a lot of employee training.
“It’s one of the most complicated things man’s ever made,” Hutcheson said. “A Boeing Dreamliner is simple by comparison.”