Paul van Gerven
12 June

Travel restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic opened a door for ASML that had been firmly closed: using augmented reality to troubleshoot complex issues at customers’ fabs remotely. Now the company sees plenty more opportunities to take advantage of the emerging technology across the entire organization.

About three months ago, an ASML team installing an EUV scanner in a Taiwanese fab ran into trouble. There was a pressure problem they couldn’t wrap their heads around. Normally, this means an expert is flown in posthaste. However, with corona quarantine measures in place, it would take him at least two weeks before he could get to work, seriously jeopardizing the customer’s production planning. To save the day, a local engineer put on a pair of hastily couriered Microsoft Hololens 2 mixed-reality smart glasses (see sidebar), allowing the expert in San Diego to get a view on what the engineer was seeing and guide him through the right steps to fix the problem.

It wasn’t as easy as that, of course. Though ASML had been experimenting with virtual and augmented reality technology for a while, it wasn’t quite prepared to perform a remote assistance operation like that. Why would it be? The thought had been entertained more than once, but the time was never invested because there was no way customers would allow it. Taking a camera to the heart of an IC manufacturing operation? Unthinkable.

Credit: ASML

Until the coronavirus reared its ugly head, that is. Faced with installation delays and idle scanners, chipmakers quickly set aside their objections. In fact, one of them suggested the option, says Peter Peusens, director of ASML’s DUV Customer Support operations. “Not long after travel restrictions were put in place, someone working at a major customer of ours sent a Youtube video about the Hololens to our service team. That e-mail ended up on my desk, with the request to see if I could look into it.”

And so started a frantic operation across the organization to add augmented reality and related technologies to the toolkit of ASML Customer Support. After several successful service actions, hopes are high that they will be a permanent addition. “Over the past few months, we’ve been making more progress in this area than we have over the past few years. We’ll work very hard to expand on that, even when corona restrictions are lifted,” explains Michiel Haverkorn, director of Customer Support at ASML.

Bridge the gap

ASML scanners are well taken care of to optimize their output. Day-to-day operations and maintenance are handled by teams working 24/7 in shifts. Should a problem arise that transcends their expertise, a call for help is placed to the local support office. The vast majority of issues are taken care of by these two support tiers. But once or twice a day, something pops up that requires the attention of ASML’s Development & Engineering (D&E) department, staffed with people that know the systems inside out.

These issues that escalate all the way to D&E are the prime use cases for augmented reality (AR) support, mainly because of the drastically reduced response time. After all, the right man for the job could be involved within the hour. But beyond the business perspective, the implementation of AR technology improves the work-life balance for D&E engineers. Even without quarantine requirements, not having to rush to a customer site on the other side of the world will be very much appreciated.

At the moment, another excellent use case is EUV scanner installation, notes Peusens. “This is a relatively new technology, and we haven’t finished documenting all the procedures involved. Nonetheless, our customers are pushing to get their systems online. In such a situation, even though it’s standard procedure to have D&E engineers present at EUV installations, complex issues are bound to arise. D&E has been getting a lot more requests for assistance in the EUV domain recently.” Haverkorn adds: “As these systems and their installation haven’t yet been fully industrialized, it’s simply impossible to anticipate what kind of expertise might be needed. AR can help to bridge that gap.”

Peusens and Haverkorn stress that despite the great potential, AR will always remain a tool that cannot replace the expertise and skill of people. “Especially in the field, AR only works in conjunction with well-trained staff with good hands. You can’t simply have an inexperienced engineer put on a Hololens and expect him to do what normally takes years of training,” says Peusens.

Credit: ASML

Years of training

ASML has started using AR internally as well. For example, whenever CS updates work instructions, these are verified by physically entering the factory in Veldhoven and do a test run. Currently, only essential personnel is allowed in there, however. The Hololens proved to be an excellent alternative. Haverkorn: “I’d say it worked even better than our old procedure. Even if our CS engineer stands right next to the person carrying out the instructions, he can’t see through his eyes. With AR, he can do this from the comfort of home without having to deal with the procedures to enter and exit cleanrooms.”

“Now that people have heard about the first examples, we’re getting daily inquiries from all corners of the company,” continues Haverkorn. “And we do see a lot more potential, of course: using virtual meetings of design teams located in different parts of the world instead of organizing review sessions in person. Training new engineers, streamlining our collaboration with suppliers, or remote customer acceptance releases of new systems – the possibilities are endless, especially as the technology evolves, but we need to prioritize right now. We can’t do it all.”