They call it “the shrink” — it is the challenge of how to pack more circuits onto the microchips that power everything from our smartphones to our computers, even our coffee machines.
Pushing the boundaries of this technology is Dutch company ASML Holding NV, which since its foundation in 1984 has quietly become a world leader in the semiconductor business.
“There is more power in your smartphone today than was used to put man on the moon,” said ASML chief operating officer Frederic Schneider-Maunoury, animatedly waving his mobile phone in the air.
When you open an app on your smartphone, the chain allowing you to book a flight, message a friend or check out who is hot in your neighborhood most likely arcs all the way back to ASML.
Headquartered in Veldhoven, near the Belgian border, it builds sophisticated lithography machines to enable the world’s top chipmakers — Intel Corp, Samsung Electronics Co and Apple Inc supplier Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (台積電) — to produce the smallest, most powerful and most cost-effective microprocessors on the planet.
Its newest machines use highly focused extreme ultra-violet (EUV) light to imprint designs on the chips, and are at the cutting edge of what is technologically possible in the art of miniaturization.
Last year, after two decades of research and development and billions of euros, ASML shipped its first 12 EUV machines to clients. Each costs about 120 million euros (US$143.53 million). This year, it has projected sales of 20 machines — by 2020, it hopes to be selling 35 to 40 a year.
It is ironic that these machines, which produce chips of infinitesimally small dimensions, are the size of a bus. Three Boeing 747 aircraft are needed to transport one machine to a client.
Long seen as a bellwether of the tech industry, the company is listed on the Amsterdam bourse, the AEX and the NASDAQ in New York.
Last year it announced profits had almost doubled to 2.12 billion euros on record sales of 9.05 billion euros.
Only two other companies in the world — the Japanese giants Nikon Corp and Canon Corp — make lithography machines and neither has yet developed EUV technology.
“Our problem is not just to find the technologies, we have to put it into the products in an economical way,” Schneider-Maunoury told reporters at his office.
ASML now employs about 20,000 people, mostly engineers and most in Veldhoven, but it also has sites in Asia and the US.
As it grows, it is hiring. About 3,000 new posts were added last year, with a similar number of new jobs expected this year.
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