When you think of making chips, you naturally think of companies like Intel or TSMC. But even if you ask the in-laws at a birthday party how those chips are made, almost everyone mentions ASML, ‘that Dutch company’ or a variation on it. After all, ASML is almost one household name has become synonymous with chip production. The company from Veldhoven even plays such a crucial role in making almost every chip in your computer, laptop, telephone or television that politicians interfere with who the ASML equipment can and cannot be supplied to. This almost monopolistic situation could easily come to an end, because an old competitor of ASML is working on a comeback.
That competitor has never completely gone away, because Canon, of course known for its cameras, still makes a substantial number of the lithography machines used to produce chips. An example: in 2020, according to Medium, 413 lithography machines were sold, of which 62 percent or 258 came from ASML. The rest were supplied by Canon and Nikon, with a respectable number of 122 by Canon and 33 by Nikon. The crux lies in what kind of machines those three lithography manufacturers supply. ASML is of course known for its euvmachines, for the most modern chips. However, a small chip is made up of a hundred layers and not all of them have to be made with those expensive machines. The less critical layers can be made with older lithography machines, with a lower resolution and, importantly, at lower costs.
And those are the machines that Canon currently supplies. The company actually makes two ‘families’ of lithography machines: i-linesteppers and KrF machines. These KrF machines, so called because of the krypton fluoride lasers used, are suitable for chips up to, say, the 90nm node. That is of course a lot less sexy than the sub-10nm chips we write about on Tweakers, but they also have non-critical layers that are made with such old machines. The i-line machines are used for even larger feature sizes, for example making thicker metal layers on a chip. In addition, Canon machines are used, among other things, for the production of CMOS sensors, which require fewer fine features, or for other chips that need to be made cost-effectively. To make a long story short: a 7nm ‘Euv’ chip is by no means only made with EUV machines and many chips are still produced using old processes.
That does not alter the fact that ASML is active in the field of leading edgechip production, especially in the field of EUV, is of course the sole ruler. Canon and Nikon do not make EUV machines at all, and only Nikon makes a handful of ArF(i) machines, while Canon ignores that market altogether. To give an indication of prices: simple steppers cost around 5 million euros, while EUV machines are sold for 150 million to 200 million euros. However, Canon is preparing to play in that particularly lucrative top segment again. That could lead to some commotion and healthy competition. Canon’s answer would not use EUV, but ‘stamp’ the patterns onto wafers.