Paul van Gerven
11 January

A factory fire is the last thing you want when you’re already struggling to satisfy customer demand.

Many types of chips have been in short supply for over a year now, but with few exceptions, these are ICs made in trailing-edge or mature manufacturing nodes. Leading-edge chipmakers, by contrast, have more or less been able to meet demand. Judging by market projections, however, it will be challenging to keep churning out enough chips. Intel, Samsung and TSMC have all laid out huge investment plans to expand capacity in a market that could grow to as much as twice its current size by the end of the decade.

Leading-edge chips require EUV scanners to be manufactured, increasingly so as the number of EUV layers per chip grows. It’s no secret, however, that ASML hasn’t been able to provide its customers with the amount of EUV wafer capacity they would like. “Customers are pushing us extremely hard to get more wafers out,” CEO Peter Wennink told investors last year.

But like chip production itself, EUV scanner manufacturing capacity can’t be expanded overnight. ASML is driving up unit shipments more than originally planned, now ramping from 35 EUV tools in 2020 to over sixty in 2023. In addition, it’s accelerating the product roadmap to deliver higher-productivity systems. After all, the more wafers pass through an EUV scanner per day, the fewer systems chipmakers need to reach their desired capacity. Still, it likely won’t be enough to satiate the appetite for EUV lithography.

Against this backdrop, it has been more than a little unnerving for leading-edge chipmakers and their customers to learn there’s been a fire at an ASML site where crucial EUV components are manufactured. While ASML is still assessing the extent of the damage, it’s bad enough for the company to state that it’s looking to “minimize any potential impact for our EUV customers.”

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Anxious

The fire broke out Sunday night 3 January at ASML Berlin, the site formerly owned by Berliner Glass. ASML acquired the German manufacturer of ceramic and optical modules in 2020 and has since divested its former supplier’s activities that aren’t related to semiconductor equipment. According to market researcher Trendforce, the fire covered approximately 200 m2 of a 32,000-m2 factory floor used to manufacture optical components such as wafer tables, reticle chucks and mirror blocks.

The fire and the smoke disrupted DUV component manufacturing, says ASML, but production has quickly been resumed and no lasting effect on output is expected. The impact on EUV component manufacturing is less clear. The affected area was used to manufacture wafer clamps, which hold silicon discs in place within a nanometer margin despite being subjected to huge mechanical forces during exposure.

ASML absorbing Berliner Glass proves that it’s a crucial component since the Veldhoven-based litho giant only acquires suppliers in exceptional cases. Typically, the company being taken over needs to control an essential technology and either lacks the executive performance or (financial) resources to keep up with ASML’s roadmap. The former was the case with Cymer (acquired in 2013) and the latter with Zeiss SMT (partially acquired in 2016).

Has the ability to manufacture wafer clamps in Berlin been seriously compromised? Have components been irreparably lost? Are major delays in EUV shipments inevitable? The general public won’t know until ASML provides further details next week, during the presentation of Q4 2021 and the full-year results. No doubt anxious leading-edge customers, pouring over their many fab blueprints, have been getting semi-daily updates on the situation, though.