FRANKFURT, Germany -- ASML, the world's leading supplier of equipment for etching circuits onto silicon chips, is starting to mass-produce eagerly awaited next-generation machinery that will enable giants like Intel and Samsung Electronics to churn out more powerful semiconductors.
The Netherlands-based group makes semiconductor lithography systems, also known as steppers and scanners, and its technological lead gives it a de facto monopoly at the outset in cutting-edge extreme-ultraviolet lithography equipment.
Earlier technology was seen as nearing the limit of how small it could form patterns on wafers. EUV machinery can emit light with wavelengths one-fifteenth as small, enabling it to etch finer circuits. The new equipment sells for 100 million euros ($119 million) or more per unit.
ASML shipped a total of 14 EUV lithography units from 2013 through 2016, mainly as trial products for chipmakers. With mass production getting underway, the Dutch company expects to ship 12 units in 2017 and 24 units in 2018.
Many customers have started buying the equipment for commercial chip production, Executive Vice President Frits van Hout told The Nikkei. Van Hout said he expects the machines to become part of the industry mainstream quickly.
EUV technology has faced technological hurdles, including in the speed of wafer processing. But weaknesses in productivity and elsewhere have been overcome, van Hout said. Units can now process 2,000 wafers per day, he said. The company's moves to strengthen its EUV lithography technology include acquiring Taiwan-based Hermes Microvision last year.
Putting EUV equipment into mass production will solidify ASML's lead in chip lithography, which amounts to a roughly 80% share of the global market. Japan's Nikon, which once held the crown, beat an early retreat from EUV machinery development and focused instead on its own miniaturization technology. But massive cost burdens from that effort led to continued losses. Nikon has announced moves including staff cutbacks and scaled-back development of next-generation equipment and is shifting to build-to-order manufacturing.