From the manufacturing of automobiles and electronic products such as smartphones, computers, televisions or game consoles, the shortage of semiconductor chips is hitting companies around the world hard.
Analysts tracking the global chip industry believe this crisis could last until 2023, causing prolonged supply disruptions in various sectors of the economy.
From this storm, a company with 37 years of experience, but little known, seems to emerge victorious, and which, according to experts, is the only one in the world capable of manufacturing the highly complex machines needed to make the most advanced chips.
With a market value of around $ 350 billion, the Netherlands-based ASML is a tech giant focused on producing so-called extreme ultraviolet lithography machines, or EUV machines.
These kits, which cost approximately $ 140 million each, project beams of light onto silicon wafers that were treated with “photoresist” chemicals. The machine forms certain patterns, and the light comes into contact with the chemicals in a process known as lithography.
ASML sells the EUV machines to a handful of chip-making giants, including TSMC, Samsung, and Intel. According to a CNBC review, each machine has more than 100,000 components and it takes 40 cargo containers or four jumbo jets to send them to their destination.
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In 2020, ASML sold only 31 of these huge teams.
Chris Miller, an assistant professor at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, told CNBC that chipmakers want to use the narrowest possible wavelength of light in lithography so that they can fit more transistors into each piece of lithography. silicon.
Transistors are one of the basic components of modern electronics that allow an electrical current to flow around a circuit. The more transistors you put on a chip, the more powerful and efficient that chip will be.
“The EUV light used by the most advanced ASML tools has a wavelength of 13.5 nanometers, allowing it to carve extraordinarily small shapes out of silicon,” said Miller, who is writing a book on the history of the semiconductor industry. .
The TSMC chips (from Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company) in Apple’s latest iPhones, which were created with ASML’s EUV machines, have about 10 billion transistors, he added.
No competition in sight
Since no one else can build EUV machines that are suitable for mass manufacturing, ASML has a monopoly on this sector and there are no signs of competition on the horizon.
“ASML is absolutely fundamental to the entire semiconductor ecosystem,” stated Peter Hanbury, semiconductor analyst at Bain & Co. “It is as important as TSMC.”
For the analyst, each cutting-edge chip, starting at five nanometers, will depend largely on the ASML team, which so far has more than 31,000 employees.
Some experts believe it would take you around a decade and billions of dollars another company reach a stage where it could begin to compete with ASML.
The Dutch firm has around 4,000 suppliers. Components used in manufacturing, such as mirrors for example, are manufactured by the German company Zeiss and are the flattest structures ever made by mankind.
“These structures themselves are kind of an engineering marvel,” Miller said. Compared to regular mirrors, Zeiss’s are relatively reflective, which is a must because chipmakers don’t want photons to be lost before light rays come into contact with their wafers.
ASML’s lithography machines are primarily manufactured in a facility located in the Netherlands, but there is also a site in Connecticut where some modules are produced, which are then shipped to ASML’s headquarters in Veldhoven.
“It’s a crazy process to ship them,” Miller said. “And then there is a great learning process to put them into operation because the machines are very complicated. It’s not ‘plug it in, turn it on and go’. It is necessary to be able to train the personnel who are operating them ”.
In September, the company made public that it expected a sales boom in the next decade and annual revenues could reach 30 billion euros by 2025, with gross margins of between 54% and 56%.
Over the past 12 months, ASML’s share price on the Amsterdam Stock Exchange has risen from around € 350 to € 772, trading at its all-time high on Friday last week.
The company’s shares listed on Nasdaq hit a 52-week high of $ 895.93 in September and last traded around $ 800.
In October, two technology investors, Ian Hogarth and Nathan Benaich, predicted that ASML will become a $ 500 billion company by the end of 2022.