View from Glen Hill: ASML: The mystery next door revealed
For those cell phones and other electronic devices we all use, there’s a high probability that the computer chips in them were patterned with ASML’s machines.
This year’s annual American history series of the Wilton Library Association and Wilton Historical Society has focused on technological development. The series’ final session featured Chip Mason, an ASML Fellow of whom there are very few worldwide, speaking on what ASML does, including especially in a major way right here in Wilton. An alumnus of Wilton High School followed by Lehigh University, he began working for Perkin-Elmer in Wilton 36 years ago.
In the course of this series’ four sessions, its large and appreciative audience has moved from the time-and-space-warping consequences of the first transatlantic steamship crossing in 1819 (planned and captained by a Connecticut native), to Igor Sikorsky’s seminal role through much of the 20th Century in fixed-wing, flying-boat and then helicopter technology, to Wilton’s own major role in the computer-chip technologies that make possible the amazing electronic devices and systems now integral to our daily lives.
Mason did an outstanding job of explaining complex processes with wit as well as clearly vast knowledge, putting them in the context of major technological breakthroughs spanning a half-century, first by Perkin-Elmer and then by Silicon Valley Group in 1990 before ASML took over the work in 2001. As Wilton’s largest employer with over 1,200 employees, ASML’s recently announced major expansion of its state-of-the-art research and manufacturing facilities right here in Wilton represents a very encouraging development for our local economy as well as for our whole state.
ASML’s cutting-edge work is at the forefront of computer-chip technology, and in fact, ASML-Wilton invented the groundbreaking step-and-scan system that revolutionized the semiconductor industry. The results have a central role in everything from driverless cars to fully integrated control systems. ASML is a key supplier to the world’s top chipmakers of the technology that images “the billions of tiny structures that define an integrated circuit’s functionality and performance.” Essentially all of the electronic devices in the world are made with ASML products included, and in fact those products are absolutely crucial to those devices’ manufacture and operation.
ASML takes a blueprint of a semiconductor chip pattern containing many transistors in integrated circuits and projects a light source through it. It then uses advanced optics to focus the pattern onto a thin “wafer” (a slice of silicon) that has been coated with a light-sensitive chemical. After the unnecessary silicon is etched away, a three-dimensional structure emerges. The process is repeated time and again in that step-and-scan system — of which critical modules are manufactured and even further developed right here in Wilton and shipped to all of the world’s leading chipmakers to manufacture silicon chips. Those chips form what amounts to a multi-story “city” of circuits with billions of tiny connections on wafer-thin layers, all accomplished using ASML’s lithographical and advanced-optics technologies.
There can be 21 billion transistors in one handheld electronic device. Consider that one meter represents one billion nanometers, and you get some sense of the incredible smallness of the tolerances that ASML works with at the 10-nanometer level, which is its current working level — a size substantially smaller than an atom. Moore’s Law reflects the observation that the number of transistors in the most densely integrated circuit available at any given time doubles every two years. It is that doubling that ASML has been a key part of, and it is no wonder that the demand for its products is skyrocketing. The work is now moving into the incredibly small scale levels of quantum physics where, as we all know, weird things can happen. So the ability of Moore’s observation to carry forward has some qualifications, but so far it has worked as forecasted with that doubling coming on schedule roughly every two to three years.
ASML’s R&D budget is 1 billion euros per year, and much of that research work is done right here in Wilton where there is a unique and synergistic combination of both research and production facilities within the same complex. Its 18,000 employees around the world work in 60 offices in 16 countries, and it’s part of the broader electronics industry that does $400 billion in business annually.
We’re very fortunate indeed to have such a cutting-edge company as ASML in Wilton — and as Wilton’s largest employer to boot with those over 1,200 highly skilled employees already here, soon to be augmented with hundreds more as ASML even further expands its research and manufacturing facilities right here in Wilton.