The paradox of exponential innovation
Interview with Martin van den Brink, President and CTO at ASML
Martin van den Brink is President and CTO at the Dutch semiconductor leader ASML. He shares his insights from a 40-year career, discussing the global component shortage, the future of silicon, and providing career advice to industry newcomers.
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ZEISS Beyond Talks
Interview with Martin van den Brink, President at ASML
If you like to buy goods – such as your next iPhone or your next car – you may not be able to get them, as the electronics may not be available. This is because electronics are starting to proliferate in everything you buy. There's almost nothing you can buy anymore without an internet connection and a chip.
At an event I attended last spring, the Chairman of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, Mark Liu, gave a speech. He said that for the coming 20 years, he sees ways of improving the energy-efficiency performance of chips by 3x each year. This is our customer, and for the next 20 years we have to provide them with solutions that will help them achieve this performance. I'm very pleased to have this long-term roadmap. However, if you are in the industry for so long – I've been doing this now for close to 40 years – you know that we are working with an exponential function of innovation. But nothing goes on forever on an exponential curve.
There's almost nothing you can buy anymore without an internet connection and a chip.
Moving forward, we have to be careful as to how much complexity we can put in machines. Managing complexity is probably our biggest challenge for the coming 20 years. By this I mean complexity not only in terms of how many different components you have, but also in terms of cost, lead time of your suppliers, the capability of your suppliers, etc. We see limits on infrastructure that we have to be smarter at dealing with, while still fueling our customers with solutions.
There are some similarities between the environmental crisis, the energy crisis, and the stepper lithography business that I am in. When I joined ASML, you could do things in a team of 10 people. Now you need 10,000! Similarly, when people think of a solar cell or a windmill, they see it only as a one-point solution. But really, it takes a system approach. It’s not just about the components needed to make a windmill, for example. It’s about how you bring everything together as a total system. This will be the challenge moving forward.
ZEISS Beyond Talks –
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I think that all the individual technologies needed to make the energy system work are known and defined. We just have to connect them in the right way and balance things to make it work economically.
If you look at the individual cost of components, it's already low enough that everybody can afford to put a chip in almost everything you buy, including clothes. So where the future innovation lies is in systems to deal with the data, to scale the data centers, and handle the computational power.
How do you see the role of silicon in the future?
I would claim that silicon will likely be needed forever. But we will likely also see things on top of silicon that are going to assist it in getting to the next level of power. Quantum computing is an example of that. It will probably not have the scale around it that silicon has, but it will be part of an improved system to get us to the next wave.
Managing complexity is probably our biggest challenge for the coming 20 years.
Please tell us something about your career and how you’ve built your knowledge over the years.
I probably should say that I had a very scientific way of getting to this point and that I looked at all the options. The truth is that I didn't. In fact, after studying electronics or physics, you often go to the major companies. In my case it was Philips, as it’s a very important technology company in Holland, where I’m from. I think the initial job offer I got from Philips was for physical software, which I turned down.
Then somebody told me about this new start-up called ASML, and they showed me a picture of what stepper lithography was all about. The thing that excited me at that interview – and why I made up my mind in a split second – was that the amount of technology coming together in a single box was mind-boggling. It was not only software and electronics, but also mechanics, mechatronics, optics – multiple different disciplines. This really attracted me when making my decision. Of course I couldn’t tell then that the company would be bigger than Philips.
Nothing goes on forever on an exponential curve.
People often come to my office and ask what they need to do to be successful. I think that first and foremost you have to enjoy what you're doing. I know a lot of people will say this is not possible. Well, if you think it's not possible, then think about it again! You have to find ways to enjoy it, and then to make sure to show that you can contribute and make a difference.
The key is not how to avoid failure; it’s how you manage failure. How quickly are you able to detect something and identify that you need to think differently? How do you learn from failure, and how can you quickly get around it? You have to be able to deal with ambiguity. I'm probably one of the guys who is quite comfortable with taking the decision to go to the right, and then I go home and ask myself, "Should we really go right, or should we change it again?"
The roadmaps we follow are often 20 years old. You cannot assume that back then someone had the right feeling on what machine to make. This is an ongoing process for all upcoming years.
ASML is a Dutch manufacturer of the lithography systems needed in the production of microchips. Founded in 1984, the company employs some 32,000 people and had net sales of EUR 18.6 billion in 2021.