ASML’s computational litho has become a crucial part of the Veldhoven company’s chip production offering. If copies exist of the stolen Brion software, these could help the Chinese litho supplier Shanghai Micro Electronics Equipment to get its machines ready for more advanced production.
Under the direction of start-up XTAL, employees at ASML Brion stole technology that’s being developed by the subsidiary in San Jose. At ASML, a company with high employee engagement, the intellectual property theft by (former) colleagues will have dealt a serious blow to the team spirit at the time it happened. The 200 million dollars that ASML received last year to cover the damages are only a meager compensation.
ASML increased its security policies after the XTAL incident and a hack in 2015. Yet the IP robbery shows the downsides of rapid expansion, the acquisition of crucial technology and an increasingly complex organization, technology and worldwide playing field.
Voices in the press and ASML tell us that its machine blueprints are safe. No Chinese company will be able to build top-notch lithography equipment any time soon. It’s not that simple. Brion’s computational lithography is part of ASML’s rapidly expanding applications portfolio of software and metrology and inspection products. And the applications business is clearly recognized as one of the three pillars that will drive ASML’s future growth, together with DUV and EUV lithography.
Doing litho is no longer only the art of making highly advanced printing machines. It’s increasingly a game where control loops, algorithms, scanner interfaces, and computational models are tying the whole thing together. Therefore, the applications business – that includes the computational software, but also ASML’s metrology tools like the Yieldstar optical instruments and HMI’s e-beam inspection – is playing an increasingly important role in wafer fabs.
Over the years, the acquisitions of companies such as Brion and HMI have changed ASML’s product strategy from supplying a scanner to supplying a solution for the entire patterning process, with measuring and inspection equipment contributing to the optimization of the chip production process. ASML refers to it as a holistic vision of how its customers have to deal with the smallest patterns on chips.
To achieve the highest yields in advanced chip production, the Yieldstar and HMI machines and the DUV and EUV scanner systems have to work together seamlessly. That’s particularly important for the newest chip generations. Producing working chips comes down to controlling the parameters that influence the precision with which the most critical details can be printed. The complicating factor is that the smallest features are now being produced using multiple exposures. Litho has become a game of very precise printing, cutting and stacking. Errors add up and a bunch of factors influences the resulting accuracy. The most important error sources are the variation in overlay (how well the different exposures fit), the overall and local uniformity of critical dimensions and the errors in optical proximity correction.
Lithography is not only a game of producing fine lines anymore, but it’s also all about minimizing the total error. ASML defines this as the edge placement error (EPE). The aim to minimize the EPE has had a profound influence on ASML’s product portfolio. Fourteen years ago, its portfolio primarily consisted of scanners. With those machines, it was able to address 50 percent of the so-called EPE budget. In other words: ASML had the products to influence 50 percent of the EPE.
With the addition of Brion in 2007, the development of the Yieldstar and the acquisition of HMI in 2016, ASML now has a suite of products that’s going to be able to address about 90 percent of its customers EPE requirements for 5nm production in 2020. “This is what really controls their yield in the fab and this is what controls their patterning performance,” says Jim Koonmen, VP of the business line Applications. ASML thus has an ever-increasing grip on the total accuracy in advanced chip production and yield in wafer fabs.
ASML might be the king of the hill in litho, it’s not alone in the metrology and the computational litho market. One fierce competitor is KLA, the market leader in chip metrology that also has a computational litho package in the offering (Prolith). The wafer fab is almost a level playing field. Chip manufacturers are the sole owner of the information generated in their fabs and the suppliers of equipment have to deliver their machines with interfaces for the exchange of these data. This is also the reason why XTAL was able to successfully offer its stolen stuff to Samsung as an alternative to ASML’s or KLA’s solutions.
Computational lithography and metrology is a huge growth opportunity for ASML. It’s one of the pillars in its ambition to grow to an annual revenue between 15 and 24 billion euros in 2025. Based on data from VLSI, Gartner and Semi, ASML showed at an investors meeting last November that the total addressable market for its applications portfolio is 5.5 billion euros in 2025. The Dutch company expects to grow 15 to 20 percent on average each year in this business. “We expect growth across all parts of our portfolio, but the main growth driver is going to be the metrology and the HMI inspection products,” Koonmen projects.
Because ASML delivers the lithographic equipment, it’s uniquely positioned to win the battle in metrology and computational litho. “The scanner is the one place in the fab that’s uniquely able to find and correct for patterning variations,” Koonmen explains. The scanner can control each and every field on every wafer that goes to the fab. “If we want to correct one wafer different from the next wafer, we’re able to do that. If we want to correct one field different from the next field, we can also do that. It’s the litho tool that has that unique capability. With all of the correction horsepower we have, that allows us to close these control loops and deliver the value.”
ASML is far ahead in chip production knowledge, both in hardware and software. China’s chip equipment market is booming with a growth of almost 60 percent to 13.1 billion dollars last year. But ASML should be aware that Beijing’s highest priority is to become technologically independent. From experience, the Dutch know that tech excellence is not a birthright. Remembering their own battle with the Japanese, they might keep an eye on the lithography company that the Middle Kingdom already is nurturing, Shanghai Micro Electronics Equipment (SMEE).
SMEE is producing a litho scanner that’s capable of printing 90 nanometer lines already. That might be a far cry from the 5nm chips that are starting to be produced with ASML’s machines, but it shows progress and ambition. In this regard, it’s wise to keep a close look at Donfang, XTAL’s still existing parent company. If copies of the XTAL loot are still around and available for SMEE, it will most certainly give them a head start in developing more advanced litho solutions.