René Raaijmakers
21 December 2023

ASML’s incoming CEO Christophe Fouquet’s biggest challenge will be to guide the company into a new era. The firefighter engineering culture will have to change.

The departure of Martin van den Brink and Peter Wennink in a few months marks the end of an era. They shared the top position at ASML for more than a decade. Van den Brink headed up development, constantly pursuing the latest technology to serve the needs of his customers. Co-CEO Wennink took care of the finances and acted as the company’s diplomat and figurehead. He also cared about his employees, from the factory floor to the top.

The year 2024 and the month of April carry symbolism: it’s forty years after ASML was founded. Van den Brink, who was hired by Philips not long before ASML was spun out, has spent his entire career with the lithography company. Because of the way he led the technology development, ASML rose to stratospheric heights. Today, there’s no company in the world with a comparable market position and (for now) impressive technological lead. It’s hard to imagine ASML having to relinquish that position to a competitor in the foreseeable future.

ASML Martin van den Brink Investor Day 2018
The narrative around advances in chips has been shifting from single dies to systems for several years. Martin van den Brink at ASML’s Investor Day in 2018.

World politics

ASML’s impact hasn’t been limited to financial markets and the economic significance of information technology. The company rose to military-strategic importance, grabbing the attention of politicians. It put the Netherlands and Europe in the spotlight and handed Dutch politicians in Brussels a bargaining chip. The superpower from Veldhoven has also been the main force driving the rising star of Brainport in the southern Netherlands. This high-tech region now matches the economic and political importance of the Rotterdam port and the traditional Dutch strengths in trade and services. It’s for historians to decide, but, as far as I’m concerned, Martin van den Brink has thereby accomplished a greater feat than Anton and Gerard Philips combined.

The year 2024 also marks the end of more than a decade of strong growth. Last quarter’s results show that ASML isn’t as recession-proof as thought. The growth is leveling off. The farewell of Van den Brink and Wennink thus also marks the end of a period in which ASML seemed unstoppable and in which a miracle was actually performed: the company got a technology up and running about which leading experts had expressed their doubts out loud.

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Coming decades

The question now is what the coming decades will bring. So far, ASML has known roughly four eras. The first eight years, until about 1992, were all about survival. In this period, ASML failed to make a distinctive product with the PAS 2500. Philips at that time provided the money to keep its subsidiary going.

With the PAS 5500, the highly modular machine developed under the leadership of Van den Brink, ASML began to capture market share. This put it on par with Canon and Nikon at the turn of the millennium. End of period two.

The arrival of CEO Doug Dunn ushered in a time of professionalization. Through the acquisition of SVG, ASML became a big boy and started looking around for companies like Masktool and Brion with which to strengthen its technology portfolio. The firm started investing in a holistic approach, a suite of software and metrology hardware to make its scanners even more effective. Immediately after he was appointed CFO in 1999, Wennink set a substantial expansion of the finance department in motion. Some old-timers disapproved, but the turbulent growth later proved them wrong.

ASML Peter Wennink annual results 2009
Peter Wennink in 2009, when he was still CFO.

Next generation

The turn of the millennium also marks the selection of extreme ultraviolet as the next-generation lithography (NGL). Formally, ions or electrons had been considered for NGL chip production as well, but never seriously. Van den Brink had the strategic insight that optical technology was the way to go.

A few years later, 157nm litho was cast aside in favor of immersion lithography, the extension of 193nm with a water film between the lens and the wafer. That expansion of the 193nm toolbox proved to greatly extend the life of this technology. Developing optics and an error-free imaging process was no easy task, but, after 2006, water-aided imaging gained steam and started to generate serious profits.

In addition to a healthy profitability, immersion, combined with improved alignment, throughput and holistic technology, allowed chip manufacturers to continue scaling when EUV struggled to mature. The industry had to embrace the expensive multi-patterning process to keep Moore’s Law going, but it worked. Multi-patterning boosted sales and market share to unprecedented levels.

Coming of age

The third period concludes with EUV coming of age. Somewhere around 2018, Apple and TSMC decided to take the plunge: they were going to manufacture the next generation of iPhone chips using EUV. The Veldhoven building buzzed with excitement: we’re going to ship twenty tools to Taiwan!

By taking the technological lead, ASML became immune to recessions. Chip manufacturers couldn’t afford to ignore the machines from Veldhoven. Those lagging paid the price. Case in point: Intel surrendering technological leadership to TSMC.

In the fourth period, EUV became a mature technology. High-NA is more of the same – I’m trying to keep it brief.

Fifth stage of life

What can we expect from ASML’s fifth stage of life? The company claims that Christophe Fouquet will also take over Van den Brink’s duties, but that seems unlikely. The duties of the man who has held the technology reigns for the past forty years will, most probably, fall to a group of people. ASML has plenty of talent on board who could do the job, but it’s difficult to follow in the footsteps of someone of Van den Brink’s stature and reputation. By not putting these people in the spotlight, ASML is sparing them the burden of being compared to the man who’s considered impossible to succeed.

On the other hand, it’s worth debating whether ASML would need another Van den Brink. His tenure is characterized by the relentless pursuit of chip shrink and, whichever way you look at it, in the next ten, maybe fifteen years, we’ll see that powerful mechanism come to an end. This calls for a different type of leader, one who can consolidate ASML’s position in new market dynamics.

Drifting

In public appearances such as analyst meetings and quarterly results, ASML’s narrative of Moore’s Law is already shifting. It’s less and less about increasing the performance of chips and more and more about advancing systems built from those chips. It’s a little harder to explain – that’s one challenge for the future leadership.

As a near-monopolist, it won’t make much of a difference whether the end of shrink will be reached with the next generation of EUV machines (high-NA) or with an upcoming variant (hyper-NA). True, researchers and engineers in Veldhoven and research centers around the world are eager to make the ultimate litho machine, but ultimately, economic laws will determine which machines will be needed. ASML will sorely miss the man who excels at the analyses that underpin such decisions.

Reliability

This brings us to the challenges facing incoming president and CEO Christophe Fouquet. His primary task will be to ensure that chip manufacturers can squeeze the highest possible profits from ASML’s machines. That means higher reliability and productivity. Traditionally, the former hasn’t been a top priority due to the quick succession of chip generations and Van den Brink’s focus on technology.

Reliability is still not part of the vocabulary of the average ASML engineer. Every machine that leaves Veldhoven is different and that needs to change. ASML is well aware of that. In recent years, it has started to focus more on predictability, configuration management and product life cycle management.

It’s well-known that Van den Brink was, by nature, no fan of such ‘boring’ processes. For a long time, therefore, they weren’t part of the company’s DNA. However, the unrelenting priority of always getting the next machine ready in time was the right one. Nikon did prioritize reliability but lost out in the market.

But times are changing. As technology reaches its limits, the rules of the game also change. ASML has already started to increase its resilience in the market. With its highly productive DUV machines, it leaves little maneuvering room for Nikon and Canon. To keep customers happy, Veldhoven will have to start delivering equally reliable and productive EUV machines as well – downtime is extremely expensive.

Processes first

However, it won’t be easy for Fouquet and his team to transform an invention machine and engineering-driven organization into a company where processes are paramount. It will bring more bureaucracy.

Die-hard developers will have to get used to this, but Fouquet can entice his engineers by arguing that the more reliable and productive ASML’s machines are, the more room there is for the new-generation machines on which they can indulge. Something along the lines of “If you guys do well, hyper-NA will be an option; if you don’t get things reliable, we’ll be forced to focus all our energy on troubleshooting EUV and high-NA.”

Already last week, I heard an analyst claim that multi-patterning EUV will probably be cheaper than single-exposure high-NA. So there’s work to be done in Veldhoven.

Lathes

The engineering challenges aren’t going away for now. Even the time-honored lathes continue to be used and improved. If no other lithographic technique emerges that can keep accelerating information technology, optical and EUV lithography will last for decades to come, and ASML will be able to dictate the pace of innovation.

Fouquet and his team must engage in a complex game to ensure that their organization doesn’t become even more arrogant and complacent. And he’ll also have to pick up the phone when Thierry Breton or the future Prime Minister of the Netherlands calls.

ASML Christophe Fouquet
Christophe Fouquet must prepare ASML for a new era. Credit: ASML

Frenchman in charge

ASML already had a Frenchman in charge, who wanted to serve customers with more predictable and reliable products. Shortly after Eric Meurice ascended to the throne, having talked to dissatisfied customers, he urged his engineers to change course. In his second term, he attempted to set up a department to ensure that a chip manufacturer could get the exact same machine as the scanner they had installed a month ago. But that kind of thing wasn’t Van den Brink’s and his team’s priority. They needed all resources to get new technology up and running.

Meurice got it right, but he barely managed to adjust the attitude of ASML’s engineers. Maybe he was just ahead of his time. Either way, Meurice failed to get D&E (Development & Engineering) to go along with his industrialization initiative.

By now, the situation has changed. If ASML doesn’t catch up with predictability and reliability, the semicon industry will start to protest. If it does succeed in making this move, the company itself will be a primary beneficiary – it’s adopting a business model in which it shares in customer revenue.

In this respect, Van den Brink’s departure is timed well. It’s almost impossible to exaggerate his significance for ASML, but a different set of priorities is needed now. There are plenty of challenges, but taking the next-generation scanners to market as quickly as possible isn’t one of them. ASML’s D&E 2.0 requires more structure, fewer projects, more processes. That can only happen under new leadership.

With that, we can expect the essence of ASML to change profoundly over the next decade. After all, the D&E organization that Van den Brink led is the heart of the company. Not only Van den Brink’s departure but also the departure of several hundred people – who will retire in the coming years – will fundamentally change ASML’s innovation machine. We’re talking about the men – sorry, they’re almost all men – who were always ready to put out a blazing fire, even if it was at night and on the other side of the world.

This firefighter culture will transition into a more bureaucratic organization in which predictability and reliability are prioritized. We’re talking about a company in which people are used to earning salaries far above those of their peers at surrounding companies. In such an organization, arrogance and politics lurk – Philips in the 1970s and beyond is a famous example. Perhaps that’s Fouquet’s greatest challenge: to ensure a winner’s mentality in a multinational company where the number-one position has been taken for granted for twenty years.

Fouquet will have to bring change to a top-of-the-list company that he himself has been a part of for fifteen years. This has advantages because he knows the DNA. On the other hand, he’ll have to change ingrained patterns and may not spare anyone in the process, including himself.