Visited ASML yesterday, wow

Posted by bert hubert Fri, 24 Nov 2006 21:55:00 GMT

Yesterday I visited a “software development seminar” of ASML, a rather well disguised recruiting event of this Dutch manufacturer of the world’s most advanced lithography machines.

When I studied physics, I organized the Delftse Bedrijvendagen, the then largest carreer fair for university students of The Netherlands. As part of that, I was exposed to almost all recruiters of large Dutch companies, including ASML. And the ASML people never failed to leave me light headed.

In brief, lithography is a major piece of the process of actually making chips. It is the part where you actually put the chip on the substrate, using high energy photons. Current 65nm chips consist of many layers, each of these layers needs to be overlaid with the previous one to a precision of a few nanometres.

To achieve this precision, the individual positioning tolerances of the wafer need to be exact within a nanometre. This is a stunning achievement in itself. For those of you in the non-metric world, there are around 25 million nanometres to an inch. So you should be impressed.

However, this is nothing yet. The lithography machines (‘wafer steppers’) are very expensive, as is the facility that hosts them. And, as there are many layers in a chip, the actual speed of the wafer stepper is of utmost importance.

The machines ASML builds actually illuminate the ‘reticle’ at speeds exceeding 5 metres a second. This is 11 miles/hour. At nanometre precision.

You should have progressed beyond “impressed” to “stunned” by now.

But this is nothing yet. As in microscopy, where water is used to improve resolution, it makes sense to immerse your chip in water while it is being exposed. So the ASML people do that. At nanometre precisions, at those stunning speeds.

To put things in perspective, the wafer is NOT flat to within a nanometre, it bends a bit. So to achieve the precision desired, the wafer is first scanned, so all its imprecisions can be compensated for.

Extreme stuff. I’m sure they don’t have this in “Star Trek”.

I left the event deeply confused - I’m already completely busy with everything I do, and PowerDNS is getting to be quite the empire. The rest of my business is doing great as well.

But my physics background makes me appreciate the incredible things happening over at ASML. Oh well. Like any job, I’m sure it would have downsides. Also, I’m not the kind of person to hold a regular job. But if you want to do stuff on the leading edge of technology, you should at least consider working there. I hear they have 300 vacancies planned for software engineers. They also have some blogs, by the way.

Their current challenge is to move their 15 million lines of C to a new platform that will control their next generation of devices, some of which need to move terabyte amounts of data in under a second.

Anyhow, the seminar was interesting. Tom Gilb presented his “Evolutionary Project Management” concepts, which match rather well with how I tend to manage my projects. One of his main points is that when people start to apply “waterfall” diagrams to software projects, you are lost anyhow. I thought so all along, but it is nice to hear a “guru” confirm it.

Inspired by the breakthrough technologies over at ASML, I’ve picked up my own speech recognition research again, after an 18 month hiatus. The initial results bode well. I get very good frequency and time definition on real speech, with code totalling 750 lines. I hope to get some actual recognition going in the coming week.

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