Forty years at ASML: ‘It started in a barracks’

Pic credit: Rogier van son through Studio040

Chip machine manufacturer ASML from Veldhoven is blowing out forty candles this Easter weekend. The company is now a global player with 42,000 employees, but it started out in Eindhoven with just forty people. A new company was started in some construction chains as part of Philips.

Where it all started

Jos Vreeker came to work there the first year. “This is where it started,” says Vreeker at an ASML monument on Strijp-T in Eindhoven. On April 1, 1984, ASML started a construction chain between the Philips buildings. A machine for making chips had to be developed here, he told Omroep Brabant.

The workspaces of that time were not like the ‘cleanrooms’ of today, where you have to wear a special suit so that nothing, not even a speck of dust, comes into contact with the chip machine. “You put on a dust coat, and you wore a hairnet. This was it. We have sometimes seen footsteps on the machine because someone had to replace a lamp. It wasn’t as precise as it is today.”

Philips and ASML

ASML started as a collaboration between Philips and another Dutch company, ASM International. “Those Philips people were not very enthusiastic in the beginning. They went to work at a start-up company that no one gave five cents. I came from outside. We went into it enthusiastically. Within the shortest possible time, those Philips people saw that it was interesting. We all went for it.”

According to Vreeker, you can compare the start of ASML with the start of Apple and Google. “The guys from Apple and Google started in an attic room, while ASML was a collaboration of companies. But in a way you can compare it: you have an idea and you start something small. Sometimes it fails, and sometimes it becomes huge. You see that with Apple, Google, and you also see that with ASML.”

First chip machine

That first chip machine from back then is now in a reception hall of ASML in Veldhoven. It was a small device compared to today’s machines. Jos joins us. “It is the size of a large refrigerator. This cost a million guilders at the time. If you look at the current machine, it is a double-decker size of more than three hundred million euros. The price has also undergone enormous development.”

Oil in cleanroom

The first machine was not a success. It was unsellable. “It worked on oil pressure and oil in a clean room where you make chips, customers don’t want that.” Even though customers were not waiting for this device, it was ingenious. “There’s some technology in here that we still use today. Endlessly developed.”

“We had to carve out our place in the industry. We had to develop a new technology and convince customers that it actually worked. It wasn’t that easy.”

ASML left the competition behind

The pioneers of ASML developed a new machine that came onto the market in 1986. “They slowly started to take us seriously. When ASML started there were fifteen companies that made these types of machines. Our biggest competitors were Nikon and Canon. We wanted to join them. Our goal was to become number three.” Ultimately, ASML left the competition behind and became the largest company.

“People now see ASML as a very successful company, but we had to fight to get our place in the industry, with all the problems that entails. We have been virtually bankrupt several times, especially in those first years.”

“The management of Philips started to lose courage a bit because it took a long time before profits were made.” Former Philips CEO Jan Timmer wanted to pull the plug several times. “Others at Philips convinced him not to do that.”

Ultimately, ASML continued independently. “Philips started to concentrate on other matters, and ASML did not fit in.”

Fantastic adventure

Eight people from the very beginning still work at ASML, including Jos. “That says something about ASML. It has been a fantastic adventure all these years. I’m glad I got to be part of it. It is quite special when the presidents of China and America talk about ASML. We never considered that possibility forty years ago.”


Translated by : Anitha Sevugan

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