What made ASML so successful today: DIGITIMES Asia's Q&A with Dutch Journalist and author Marc Hijink

TAIPEI, May 23, 2024 /PRNewswire/ — In an exclusive video interview with DIGITIMES Asia managing editor Judy Lin (JL), Marc Hijink (MH), the acclaimed Dutch journalist and author of “Focus – the ASML Way,” during his visit to Taipei, Taiwan, delves into the intricate world of ASML, a global leader in semiconductor lithography machines.


Reflecting on his immersive experience embedded within ASML, Hijink shares insights into the company’s resilience amid geopolitical tensions, its strategic focus on innovation, and the human factors driving its success. As ASML grapples with export controls and expands its presence in Asia, the interview offers a glimpse into the challenges and triumphs shaping the semiconductor industry’s future.

Marc is joining TechInsights Vice Chair G. Dan Hutcheson in the latest GeoWatch Video Series “Decoding Excellence: ASML’s Evolution Towards Leadership and Beyond” to be broadcasted on DIGITIMES’ YouTube channel at 09:30 a.m. Taipei time on May 16.

JL: Marc, would you like to give a self-introduction and tell us what inspired you to write this book?

MH: Of course, thanks for having me here. I am Marc Hijink, a Dutch newspaper reporter. I’ve written a book about ASML, and it’s my second time in Taipei. I already love it here. So I fell in love with the country of Taiwan on day one. For this book, Focus, the ASML way, I’ve been embedded in the company for quite a couple of years. Before that, I was writing about the company ASML as a financial reporter, diving into technology.

After a certain period, I think it was during Corona (COVID-19) that I asked them if I could follow the company on background, just behind the scenes, to see how they were doing with all the troubles in the supply chain as all the world had to manage the shortages.

It was exactly during the pandemic, that the chip shortage hit. During the height of geopolitical tensions, ASML was on the front page of every newspaper. So for me, it’s like a perfect fit, I could delve into the company, and also experience how they were dealing with these gigantic pressures from the outside.

After that one year, I wrote an extensive article for NRC. Then the book publisher tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Hey, isn’t there a book in it?” I went back to ASML and said, “Well, there’s this interest from the outside world, I think you have a great story to tell, let me write it and also allow me to gather other sources like third or even fourth sources. So I can just do the reporter thing and verify if everything is correct.” They granted me the opportunity, which I’m still grateful for. So I got a long, objective panoramic view of the company. They never interfered in the things I could write or could not write. I got the opportunity to travel all around the world and see their certain divisions and go into the clean rooms, go into the boardrooms, and meet with their leadership several times. These are great stories to tell.

JL: Wow, what a dream job that you got.

MH: Yeah. It is a nightmare if you compare it to the deadlines I had to make, but okay, I managed. Yes.

JL: So are there any unforgettable experiences during this process?

MH: Well, I have a few pictures in my head, I could share. They’re also in the book. So one of these moments these scenes is in Obercochen, which is a very small country village in a mountain in Germany. Obercochen is the headquarters of Zeiss, which is the supplier that kind of develops the most important component of the lithography machine, which is the machine that ASML makes. It’s like a giant copier. It has a light source like a flashlight, but also lenses, and Zeiss builds these very complex lenses.

At the Zeiss lab, I saw what looked like giant canisters a couple of meters high and they seemed to be like cut-in-half submarines and that’s where they recreate a vacuum to measure the mirrors inside the lithography machine.

These mirrors are so extremely flat that if you would point out I think a laser beam on it, and we aim it at the moon, you could hit a golf ball with it. So it’s extremely flat to the last atom.

You step into this James Bond scene, and there you see what technology is needed to build a chip that will end up in a phone or an AI chip in about five or six years. It’s like crazy.

JL: ASML is often seen as a national jewel of the Netherlands, yet there was a time when it was on the brink of failure. What were the factors that helped it turn around its fate?

MH: Well, you’re right. ASML had a very rough start about 40 years ago, they were on the brink of collapse practically every couple of years because there were huge downturns in the chip manufacturing industry. ASML as a starting company had a rough time. But they were lucky, a couple of times lucky enough to survive, and they combined it with focus. They’re a one-trick pony. So they concentrated all of their energy and innovative power on lithography machines. When they start focusing on the long term, their investments have been immense throughout the company’s history.

Even during downtime at terms, ASML kept its R&D up on a level that far exceeded competitors. So they were investing more, and that kind of helped them innovate for future generations.

I think that focus is also something that was on their customer. So they only have a couple of customers, I think five or six that are important. They found it so important to deliver these machines on time, and always get the deadline.

So they built machines that weren’t even perfect, that weren’t working properly yet. It is even so with the newest generation, it’s called High-NA, I think it’s the most advanced machine that this earth has ever seen. Even though it is not working properly, they do sell it already, and they ship it already. Together with the customers, they start tweaking the system.

This creates a kind of cooperation and bond between ASML and its customers. If you look at the numbers, it’s somewhat crazy to buy a machine for such an amount of money that you don’t even know if it will work in the end. However, ASML has gotten more and more experienced. So the focus on the customer is also very important.

The funny thing about being so focused as a company is that it also tends to lose sight of things that happen outside of focus. As a journalist, it’s always fun to see that even a high-tech company like ASML occasionally drops the ball on other subjects.

JL: Yes, it’s fascinating to read your book and find out that ASML works very closely with its customers. Considering the geopolitical tensions affecting the global tech industry. What are the challenges ASML is facing to maintain its leadership, especially, you know, the US is restricting the export of lithography machines to China?

MH: Yeah, well, of course, the export controls affect not only ASML as a market leader but also its Japanese competitors, like Nikon and Canon. So all the lithography machine makers are affected by these measures. If you look back at the history of ASML, the company grew just after the Cold War ended, which was in 1989, so quite some years ago, and which made it easier because the rules were far, far more relaxed.

So ASML, traditionally, wasn’t very much impressed by politics, they thought it was a fuss. They focus on the technology and forget about the politics. Yet, well, times have changed. ASML has to grow up.

But for the company, it’s tough that it’s based in a small country – the Netherlands, which is not a geopolitical superpower, like the US or China. So it has to defend its sovereignty against these huge countries. For ASML, that’s kind of hard to understand that a company that’s so important for the ecosystem of the rest of the world is depending on a relatively small government. So they aim to turn this into a European thing because Europe in itself is a superpower, but the export control things are all determined locally.

In my book, my thesis is that ASML should be regarded as a European company because it outgrew the Netherlands. If you look at the history of ASML, the company started with a lot of European funding. For example, in the development of EUV, there was a European fund involved. So if you look back at history, at this moment in time, you would say ASML is a European company.

JL: Interesting. The Dutch government understands how important ASML is. So right now they have this project Beethoven that was aimed at retaining ASML. So how successful do you think they are doing right now?

MH: Well, well, let’s start with this name Beethoven. It was like a secret code name. There wasn’t any reason to choose a composer’s name for that. But I think it has to do with Veldhoven, where ASML has its headquarters, which is a very small town, in a very small country like the Netherlands. With Eindhoven, a slightly bigger town nearby. That’s just something that the Dutch government thought that they tried to invest more in the infrastructure, the educational systems, and the more affordable housing in the vicinity of Veldhoven. ASML is doubling its footprint preferably in the Netherlands, because that’s the brain of the company.

Expanding here is kind of hard as well, especially in the Netherlands. So it needs help from its government, state subsidies for more roads, more technical talent, and housing, just to give everybody a place to live, who wants to work at ASML.

But its expansion also depends on its supply chain. About 80% of this huge lithography machine is built by or outsourced to other companies. Zeiss is a very important supplier, but also VDL, a Dutch company, and lots of other companies in the region where ASML is based. So if ASML has to double, all these other companies have to double in size as well. The Netherlands is having a hard time digesting all that growth. So that’s why they invented Beethoven to accommodate that.

JL: Well, actually, I think that ASML is also expanding fast in Asia. The success of semiconductor hubs largely depends on the ecosystem strategy, as shown here in Taiwan as well. So how has ASML been building its ecosystems in South Korea or Taiwan?

MH: Well, if you look at the total footprint of ASML and think about the number of employees, half of them are based in the Netherlands. So the other half is based around the world, especially in Asia, the US, and also Germany. So all the places where new fabs are popping up, ASML is also there, because it has to service its machines.

These are machines that need 24/7 attendants, they refer to them as their babies that need nursing, because if you don’t give them enough attention, they’ll stop or malfunction, and then chip production will halt, which is a problem. It’s a massive amount of money you have on one wafer, of course. So ASML has to be close to these fabs. As both Taiwan and Korea are expanding rapidly, when it comes to building new fabs, if you look at for example, the plans that Korea just announced, I think they’re investing almost $500 billion worth of investment in the semiconductor industry, until 2049.

So they still have a long time to invest that amount of money. So it’s doubling in size, or even tripling and ASML has to grow accordingly. This is also the case in Taiwan. For example, for the book, I visited Linkou, one of the facilities of ASML here in Taiwan. There, they clean the lens and the mirrors used for these EUV machines. It’s like a car wash for these very expensive mirrors, which is very interesting. It is also interesting to see how dense the areas are, so they have little room to expand. Now they’re going to expand in New Taipei City. And it’s a huge investment. However, ASML believes that a large part of its future is also here in Taiwan.

JL: So based on your interactions and experiences with ASML, what are the human factors that made the company what it is today? How about that core value and culture there?

Well, I think ASML culture is very direct, even compared to Dutch standards, because people from the Netherlands are usually regarded as direct or sometimes blunt, but at ASML even at a higher degree, if you’re being too polite, you tend to lose time.

ASML needs the lowest latency they can get to produce these machines. So in the culture, it’s also common to challenge each other. Not only your colleagues but also your leadership. So you’re also supposed to confront the leadership with its mistakes. That’s the only way t filter out the flaws in the lithography machine bits because it’s such a complex device with hundreds of 100,000 parts, and to build it so it will work and operate 24/7. You have to make sure that all the errors are out, it’s about managing the errors. ASML has created this culture, this very direct culture that makes it easier for these flaws and the best ideas to pop up. And it’s like a collective brain.

I think this is something that the company has to keep on doing, even though it’s growing so rapidly. It’s easier to create a collective mind if you’re a small company, but it’s now doubling in size. So that’s a challenge.

JL: Yes, I believe companies here in Taiwan have a lot to learn from ASML in managing talent from diverse cultures and managing engineers who know a lot more than their boss.

MH: Well, that’s an interesting aspect because ASML is trying to be a more diverse company. If you look at it culturally, it’s like a blend. It’s not a purely European company, it’s not a purely Asian company. It’s like a like a blend, like, like a Bordeaux. It’s like a 40% blend of Asian, European, and American in spirit, and mixed, then you get this ASML way.

Curious about ASML’s success or the future of semiconductor equipment industry? Tune in to DIGITIMES Asia’s new GeoWatch video. Join TechInsights’ Vice Chair and Marc Hijink as they explore industry trends and provide expert insights.

Editor’s Note:

Marc Hijink is a technology reporter for NRC, a prestigious business newspaper in the Netherlands. His book Focus, the ASML Way was published first in Dutch earlier this year, and its English Kindle version is now available on Amazon.





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