NTS is ASML’s partner for the development and manufacturing of the source support frame and the reticle stage service unit, among other things. By looking critically at the initial design and the production process, the company was able to drastically reduce the modules’ cost price.
Value engineering and cost-down projects: two topics you don’t immediately associate with ASML, which generally puts technological superiority and functionality front and centre. But the competition isn’t sitting still, and they’re putting better and better systems on the market. That has turned the Veldhoven developers’ attention increasingly to the price tag. ‘We’re building better systems and simultaneously paying attention to costs,’ says Wijnand van Heerd, a procurement account manager at ASML. ‘The two aren’t mutually exclusive. When we want to improve our modules, we ask our suppliers from the start to help us lower the cost.’
A good example of this approach is the partnership between ASML and NTS. the system supplier in Eindhoven is ASML’s development partner for the source support frame (SSF) in its EUV machines and the reticle stage service unit (RSSU) for its NXT systems. ‘Our ambitions for both modules are the same,’ says Van Heerd. ‘We want to put our technology and high-quality products on the market as quickly as possible, which means the supplier has to race along the learning curve and constantly work with us to come up with cost improvements during the introduction, industrialization and volume-production phases. That last one can be tricky. You want to standardize production as fast as you can, while being able to implement any design changes as long as you can.’
ASML can only accomplish that through efficient early supplier involvement. ‘We gather the right specialists around the table, from development, assembly and our manufacturing competencies,’ says Ruud van Oers, a senior group account manager at NTS. ‘Together, we look for points of improvement and places where things can be done more cheaply. That’s also the route that NTS wants to take towards its customers: providing them with maximum support for their non-core products. We do that through customer intimacy and through products that are a good fit for us. We’re using that approach with more and more customers, where we take responsibility for the total lifecycle.’
The SSF is the frame on which the EUV source rests. To perform maintenance on the six-tonne source, it must be carefully slid out of the machine. That’s precisely the functionality the SSF provides. NTS was responsible for the module’s initial design, in close consultation with ASML’s engineers. That design was then qualified on the EUV machine. ‘The first version was relatively expensive,’ says Van Oers. ‘That was mainly because it had to be delivered fast. In that situation, cost plays second fiddle to manufacturability, quality and delivery date in realizing the desired functionality.’
Van Heerd adds: ‘That was back in the old days, when ASML interacted with its suppliers in a more traditional way. We hired people and companies and forged less of a link between design and industrialization. So there was also less of a focus on keeping costs down. In recent years we’ve embraced a new method, in which we try to achieve greater vertical integration and attack things simultaneously.’
Once the initial design was working satisfactorily, it was time for the next step: cutting costs. ASML and NTS set up a workshop to examine the design from a cost point of view. ‘In that situation, cost transparency and trust are the necessary foundation for working well together,’ says Van Heerd. The brainstorming session generated roughly fifty ideas that were categorized according to feasibility and return. In that matrix, thirty-six points of improvement ultimately turned out to be interesting enough to explore further.
‘For example, we’d bought the guide rail,’ Van Heerd says. ‘It was a modified off-the-shelf product. We gave the supplier some additional requirements in terms of stiffness and cleanliness, and it modified an off-the-shelf product for us.’ For that part, NTS suggested selecting a new supplier and releasing the design through ASML’s materials standardization process.
The guide rail in the SSF is a fully milled base rail fitted with a linear slide. The entire part must be sealed so that the trolley that carries the frame is separated from the rest of the system. In the original design, the rail was a gutter with a lid. During the workshop, ASML and NTS came up with the idea to do away with the sides of that gutter and to let the plastic lid form the walls. So the gutter became smaller and the lid became larger. That cut down on the amount of customer-specific material used, and NTS was able to switch to a more standard and lighter base material.
Adding up all the suggestions for improvement would generate savings of 20 to 25 per cent on the original cost price. NTS picked up the reins and started the cost-down project. The product now falls fully under NTS’s responsibility as the original module manufacturer, including an appropriate financial incentive.
In terms of functionality, the RSSU is similar to the SSF. The module makes it possible to move the reticle stage outside the NXT machine for maintenance. The original design is ASML’s, but NTS was involved in the development process from an early stage. ‘That enabled us to design and create a product in a short time,’ says Van Oers. ‘We also incorporated DFX – for cost and quality, among other things – very early in the process.’
Van Heerd adds: ‘It’s a module that slides a component outside the machine so it can be serviced, and people have to be able to work beneath it. That adds in a whole slew of extra safety requirements. For example, it has to be CE approved and it has to be able to withstand earthquakes, even during machine maintenance. Those requirements are all pretty stringent, and all of them have to be qualified. NTS developed the tools for that itself.’
NTS is still manufacturing the RSSU modules in the Netherlands right now, but given the continuing cost-down objectives, ASML and NTS have broadened the RSSU’s production roadmap to include global sourcing. ‘We did a cost analysis, which showed that we could lower the price if we moved production to the Czech Republic, where we’ve had a branch since 2015,’ Van Oers explains. And so NTS will very soon be shifting the RSSU’s complete manufacture to NTS Mechatronics Brno.
Was Asia also an option? ‘We ran the benchmark and saw that in terms of cost, the Czech Republic was quite competitive for this kind of product. What’s more, the cost to fly a module like this to Europe is much higher from Asia. And flying is required by ASML’s logistics framework. From the Czech Republic, you can send it by lorry. The advantage is that the lorry will be making the trip anyway, for other products.’
There’s another reason to prefer the Czech Republic to China: namely, the module is partially constructed using a special variety of stainless steel. ‘The RSSU sits in the middle of the machine, so there are very strict requirements on its volume, yet you can’t make any concessions on strength and stiffness,’ says Van Oers. ‘So you often end up using somewhat more exotic materials that are easier to find in Europe than in Asia.’