the Digital

the Digital

How HENSOLDT precision is enabling a new manufacturing technology for semiconductors

Semiconductors are a key component of the digitalized, networked world and are therefore of high strategic importance. The European Chips Act is intended to significantly expand semiconductor production in Europe. HENSOLDT enables new ways in the production of semiconductors with sophisticated optronic measuring equipment and thus supports the dynamic development of the semiconductor industry.

Whether automated vehicles or aircraft, Industry 4.0 or private smart homes, computers or kitchen appliances, infrastructure, space travel, or cloud solutions – semiconductors keep the world moving today. Around one trillion of these microchips are manufactured every year. According to a survey by the European Commission, the industry expects demand to double by 2030 alone. Therefore, microchips have to be produced in ever greater quantities, ever faster. At the same time, they are becoming smaller, more powerful, and thus more complex. Whereas ten years ago a chip the size of a fingernail had around 500 million integrated circuits, today there are 500 billion. The complexity doubles roughly every two years.

In the wake of the pandemic, the extent to which disruptions in the global semiconductor supply chain can virtually paralyze entire sectors of the economy was clearly demonstrated – with effects that continue to the present day. The European Commission has therefore defined demanding specifications for European semiconductor development and production with the European Chips Act. It is intended to strengthen Europe’s competitiveness, independence, and resilience in this area. As a market-leading supplier of radiation measurement solutions for production control, HENSOLDT plays an important role for semiconductor manufacturing.

HENSOLDT as “Hidden Champion” in Semiconductor Production

The Dutch Group ASML is one of the world’s leading equipment suppliers to semiconductor producers and is currently Europe’s most highly valued tech company. ASML is the only company to master so-called EUV lithography. In this process, semiconductors are exposed to “extreme ultraviolet light” (EUV).

This is made possible by innovative sensor technology from HENSOLDT. Since 2012, a process has been developed and mass-produced in Oberkochen without which a modern EUV system could not function: Under the name Final Focus Metrology (FFM), this technology ensures that the laser needed to generate the extreme ultraviolet light is controlled with the highest precision. Optoelectronically, each laser shot is guided unerringly into the target. Up to 50,000 times per second.

For ten years now, HENSOLDT and ASML have been working together on the (further) development of this technology. In 2022 alone, HENSOLDT delivered more than 80 FFM units to ASML. In total, more than 300 high-precision measuring devices have already been reliably integrated into the EUV systems within the tight time windows of chip production. For this excellent cooperation, HENSOLDT was awarded the ASML Supplier Recognition Award in the field of logistic handling as the best of more than 700 suppliers by ASML.

Due to the increasing demand for chips, ASML has already increased the production of EUV systems by almost 50 percent in the past two years. In the coming years, the Dutch company plans to manufacture significantly more EUV systems – each one worth more than 100 million euros and equipped with an FFM unit from HENSOLDT. Largely unnoticed by the public, HENSOLDT has thus become a “hidden champion” of an important present and future technology – with central importance for many industries and enormous potential.

Image from the Excellent Logistic performance award
Diagram of FFM development. It started in the second quarter of 2012, when ASML gave the order to develop the first FFM generation. The first prototype of the fourth FFM generation is expected to be delivered in mid-2023

Insight into Chip Production

In the production of microchips, billions of transistors are deposited on a fingernail-sized portion of a silicon wafer. For comparison: A human red blood cell is 7,000 nanometers in diameter, and an average virus is 14 nanometers in size. The smallest structures on the most advanced semiconductors are currently five nanometers in size. With its EUV technology, ASML aims to reduce this size even further.

HENSOLDT is providing the basis for this with its Final Focus Metrology high-precision measuring device. FFM is about half a square meter in size, 20 centimeters high, and weighs 125 kilograms. Inside is a high-precision measuring device with infrared camera, energy sensors, and wavefront sensor for controlling the laser required for generating extreme ultraviolet light. With the third FFM generation “FFM S3+Phase 2,” HENSOLDT was able to contribute to significantly increasing the light output compared to previous systems.

Currently, HENSOLDT is developing the fourth generation of its FFM in collaboration with ASML. The first prototype is expected to be operational by mid-2023. With yet another significant increase in precision, it will open up new possibilities for the chip production of tomorrow. This is because the difference in precision between the third and future fourth FFM generation currently in use will be comparable to the difference between the stroke of a highlighter and that of a fine liner – or between these two lines:

Graphic of a green pen and a green highlighter
Photo of a Final Focus Metrology

Final Focus Metrology (FFM)

Image of a laboratory worker with a microchip in his hands

Microchips – Semiconductors – Transistors The terms microchips and semiconductors are often used synonymously. Strictly speaking, semiconductors such as silicon are the basic material of a chip into which complex electrical circuits are inscribed. For this purpose, so-called transistors are produced by combining different layers of semiconductors: components whose conductivity can be controlled so that they either allow current to pass through them or not. These transistors can be interconnected to form complex circuits that can process commands and store data. The architecture of the circuits differs depending on the task of the chip: processors contain one or more chips and perform the central computing and control tasks in computers. Memory chips conserve data permanently or temporarily as working memory for running specific programmes. So-called single-chip systems can perform several of these tasks, are programmable, and are used in artificial intelligence.