Intel's $4.1 billion investment in ASML is not unlike the waiter bringing the check before serving the meal. But it had to be this way.
When the semiconductor industry began the transition from 200-mm wafers to 300-mm wafers more than a decade ago, chip makers convinced tool suppliers to foot the bill for the R&D required to make the move with the promise that they would be justly and richly rewarded with robust sales of the new systems, which much of the industry appeared anxious to adopt. But they were left holding the bag when the dot come bubble burst and—surprise—chip makers decided to delay deployment of 300-mm capacity.
Many equipment industry executives were understandably bitter about this. This was in large part the reason that, when chip makers first began making noise about moving to 450-mm wafers a few years ago, the sound you heard was mostly echos and crickets chirping.
A lot of people were skeptical right from the beginning that 450-mm would happen at all. Now it appears that 450-mm is inevitable, though the conventional wisdom holds that only a handful of chip makers—notably Intel Corp., Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Ltd. (TSMC) and Globalfoundries Inc.—will ever build 450-mm manufacturing lines.
Still, right from the start, there has been much debate about how tool suppliers and their customers would divvy up the R&D costs associated with moving to the new wafer size. (Bob Johnson of Gartner Inc. said this week that the cumulative cost of 450-mm development will be about $17 billion, about $2 billion of which is being spent this year, though he acknowledged that other estimates vary widely).
Some fledgling development efforts are now well underway, including the Global 450 Consortium, a $4.8 billion collaborative effort housed at the Albany NanoTech Complex and backed by the companies mentioned above, as well as IBM Corp.
For some tool makers, though, this was not enough. ASML Holding NV, the dominant player in lithography equipment, was largely seen dragging its feet on 450-mm. Moving to 450-mm will require new lithography equipment with more advanced stages that can support the increased size and weight without creating vibrations that would make accurate lithography exposure impossible. Given the fact that no more than a handful of chip makers are expected to buy the new tools, ASML foresaw a limited return on the considerable investment that would be required.
ASML of course has now come around, but only after the firm devised an innovative equity-plus-research funding scheme that asks those chip makers with the most to gain from the move to 450-mm wafers—and extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography that matter—to foot some of the bill for new technology up front.
On Monday, Intel announced it would acquire a 15 percent stake in ASML as part of a $4.1 billion deal to accelerate the development of 450-mm and EUV lithography. In addition to paying over $3 billion for the stake in ASML, Intel is also contributing more than $1 billion more directly to the development of the new technologies. Intel, of course, also committed to advanced purchase orders for 450-mm and EUV development and production tools.