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FOCUS - The ASML Way by Marc Hijink

Moore’s Law states that the number of transistors inside an integrated circuit doubles every two years. While the world claims that we are reaching the end of it, a small town in the Netherlands is building the machines that continue to prove them wrong. This increased miniaturisation of transistors known as technological nodes relies on the engineering and precision manufacturing marvel called photolithography machines.


An Illustration on Focus - The ASML Way by Marc Hijink

Illustration by The Geostrata


Lithography machines can be compared to photocopier machines except that what the machine prints runs the global economy; the silicon-based semiconductor chips. Modern data-driven capitalist economies that define Industry 4.0 cannot be imagined without these chips as they are the computing workhorses on which everything from a smartphone to an F35 fighter jet is developed and deployed. 


“FOCUS: The ASML Way” is a comprehensive exploration of the semiconductor industry and the pivotal role played by ASML, a company that emerged from Philips Corporation in 1987 and has since become a leader in lithography systems.

The book delves into the intricacies of semiconductor manufacturing, particularly the development of Extreme Ultraviolet (EUV) lithography machines, which are essential for creating the transistors that power modern technology. Author Marc Hijink brings a detailed insider account of the world’s biggest system integrator on steroids who has the relentlessness and mettle to push the laws of physics to new frontiers.


Marc has travelled across the world from TSMC in Hsinchu to the White House and of course, ASML where he received open access for three years throughout which he conversed with ASML engineers and staff members whose insider account and narration of events are distilled in this fine piece of literature. 


Transistors form the basis of integrated circuits. Transistors are the product of post-war fundamental scientific research. However, their story of origin and growth has been shadowed by the scientific and strategic discourses around nuclear technology.

This turned out to be an opportunity for the industry since they found their way into civilian lives. Their significance will be increasing every day as modern data-driven decision-making will demand more computational power.  FOCUS is the story behind the equipment that creates these transistors. 


The narrative is structured into thematic sections, each offering a detailed account of different aspects of ASML’s operations and its impact on the global semiconductor ecosystem. It highlights the company’s innovative spirit, fostered by a corporate culture that values direct communication and confrontation, which is seen as a catalyst for breakthroughs in technology.


The book is significant for multiple reasons. The first reason is the growing politicisation of semiconductors as a high-technology sector. Nation-states worldwide intend to localise the supply chain of semiconductor manufacturing for their domestic needs.

One of the many reasons behind this endeavour is to insulate themselves from the geopolitical turbulences affecting consumer products such as computers, automobiles, smartphones, data centres, industrial hardware, military command and control centres, and yes washing machines. 


A significant focus of the book is the geopolitical landscape surrounding semiconductor technology, emphasising the new trend behind the derisking and regionalisation of critical and emerging technologies and the implications of international trade disputes on the industry.


The story of ASML is portrayed against this backdrop, illustrating the company’s challenges and triumphs as it navigates the complex interplay between technology and politics.

After years of research when EUV machines found their way into the foundries, the Sino-American trade war led to the politicisation of the machines that ASML creates. ASML found itself between the devil and the deep blue sea as the American security state demanded that ASML deny itself of the biggest market in Asia, a similar fate that fabrication giant TSMC faced later as Huawei was brought under the Entity List by the American state.


The political tip-toeing that the leadership of ASML had to perform from Veldhoven to Brussels and Washington DC describes how technology defines geopolitical power. 


The inside stories that the author narrates about the quirky sides of ASML’ers such as the confrontational nature that the engineers hold as a part of their corporate culture is what enables innovation.


Ruthless and honest negotiations, going beyond organizational and hierarchical straitjacketing and the ability to initiate straightforward conversations have become the fabric of ASML. Someone who runs a heavy manufacturing enterprise can appreciate how the company sits at the cusp of the next big thing in equipment development and manufactures them at an industrial scale, a lion-hearted task which is a highly under-appreciated trait of our modern industrial society. 


The author, with a blend of clarity and candidness, provides insights into ASML’s relationships with key partners like Zeiss Semiconductors, showcasing the deep integrations necessary for advancing the semiconductor industry.

One of the humorous takes that the author captured in the book “It is worse than the marriage- we can never get rid of each other now.” (Martin van den Brink) explains how deep heterogeneous integrations (a contentious yet exciting topic in the strategic management literature) go when it comes to developing products that are designed and manufactured for developing computing workhorses on which modern economy depends to function. 


The book is accessible to a broad audience, offering wisdom on innovation and the relentless pursuit of precision in an industry that underpins the data-driven decision-making of the modern world. “FOCUS: The ASML Way” serves as an enlightening read for anyone interested in understanding the technological, economic, and political forces shaping the future of semiconductors and their ubiquitous presence in our daily lives.


 

BY NISARG JANI

TEAM GEOSTRATA

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