Conquering the world together

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What’s the secret behind VDL Enabling Technologies Group? The supplier of high-quality mechanical components, modules and complete systems has weathered the financial crisis well and is taking work off powerhouse ASML’s hands by developing wafer handlers. From research to production, VDL ETG believes in working together as equals.

VDL Enabling Technologies (VDL ETG) is one of ASML’s largest suppliers. The VDL Group’s total revenue in 2016 was more than three billion euros, some 250 million of which came from ASML. The semiconductor equipment manufacturer has ambitious plans for growth: in 2020 its total revenue should reach ten billion euros. The supplier is hoping to share in the wealth – or help create it, depending on how you look at things.

VDL ETG manufactures the housing, called the vessel, for the EUV source, including cabling and other associated parts. Guustaaf Savenije, the CEO and CTO of the VDL division, has a prototype standing outside his office, so that his people and colleagues from ASML can play with it.

VDL ETG is also involved in the construction of ASML’s wafer handlers, for both its DUV and EUV systems. A wafer handler directs wafers into and out of the machine. That makes it an important contributor to a lithography machine’s operation and speed.

For some time now, VDL ETG has taken care of not only the wafer handlers’ production but also their design. And that’s just how ASML likes it: the company prefers to focus as much as possible on its own core competencies and outsource responsibility for other functionality. ‘The idea is that modules are delivered plug-and-play,’ says Savenije.

The software is the only thing VDL ETG is forced to develop partially on site at ASML. ‘That’s because the system software wasn’t designed to be sufficiently modular. Our people design and write the software for the wafer handler in-house. When the module software is integrated with the system software, they work very closely with their ASML colleagues,’ Savenije explains.

Guustaaf Savenije: ‘It’s not just about the technology, but also about managing the development process.’

Just do it

The wafer handler project is the first time VDL ETG has invested in activities that were previously carried out by ASML in-house. It’s a new step in outsourcing that requires a different approach on both sides, both technical and administrative. VDL ETG has its developers and production personnel work closely together. ‘That enables you to move innovations to production faster,’ says Willem van der Leegte, who at the time of this interview hadn’t yet succeeded his father Wim as the VDL Group’s president.

‘There’s a natural gap between people in production and people in development; they’re different types of people. But if collaboration leads to a better result, they’re instinctively motivated to seek each other out more. That’s part of the VDL Group’s culture. I do it myself: walking through the plant to chat with employees. You often hear fantastic things that way.’

Van der Leegte thinks that’s part of what helped his company sail through the financial crisis. ‘There was less work available in the high-tech industry, but in 2009 we had a terrific order from Dubai to deliver 520 buses. Our high-tech people at the ETG offices in Almelo were assembling buses in Heerenveen. Thanks in part to that, we were able to keep all of our permanent employees. As soon as the industry began to recover, they were able to get back to their regular work. At first it took some getting used to, of course, but they knew it was temporary. Ultimately, many of them enjoyed being in a different environment and working with different colleagues. So, you see, collaboration isn’t something you have to learn; you just do it.’

Today, two hundred developers work at VDL ETG. ‘We’re trying to recreate part of Philips’ former CFT,’ Savenije says. Philips’ Centre for Fabrication Technology was absorbed into Applied Technologies more than ten years ago; the name has since been changed to Philips Innovation Services.

Next year, VDL ETG will be moving its research department from the High Tech Campus in Eindhoven to its premises in Acht and at De Hurk. That means customers such as the Swiss scientific institutes CERN and Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) and companies such as Philips, ASML and FEI only need to knock on one door for engineering, the creation of functional models and prototypes, and their ultimate production in larger series.

‘Our customers want a one-stop-shop,’ says Van der Leegte. ‘And that’s another thing that motivates us to push development and production closer together.’ Another advantage is that it makes it easier to safeguard continuity from prototype to volume production, Savenije says. ‘Now the plant is involved from the start.’

Though VDL ETG isn’t a member of Brainport Industries, a consortium founded by high-tech suppliers NTS, KMWE and Frencken, it collaborates extensively with companies in the region. ‘We have to stand together, so we can conquer the whole world. But we don’t have to be there for every discussion. We participate where our influence will have maximum effect and where we can generate maximum traction, but you always have to think in terms of your own strengths.’

VDL ETG hopes to put its expertise in developing complex systems like the wafer handler to use for other customers. ‘It’s not just about the technology, but also about managing the development process,’ says Savenije. ‘Other companies can do precision milling, too, but we really shine in challenging projects where every discipline, not just the technical ones, is represented and you have to manage the entire supply chain. Look, ASML is successful thanks to a solid supply chain, and we’re an important part of that. And we put a lot of energy into that very valuable partnership. But we also know how to develop lean-and-mean and how to make products using the right specifications.’

Willem van der Leegte: ‘Collaboration isn’t something you have to learn; you just do it.’

Yes, but

VDL ETG has been working on the vessel for ASML’s EUV machine since 2011. The supplier also provides developmental support, primarily to assess whether the proposed design can realistically be manufactured at high quality. ‘The hardest thing is to keep this vat of welded parts clean and to make sure no gases are released when the vat is pumped down to vacuum,’ says Savenije. ‘We can put that same knowledge to work for other customers. We’re constantly working with ASML to improve this module, just as we do with the wafer handler. Configuration management is also extremely important to be able to deliver a specific replacement part to customers.’

VDL ETG’s development department has been growing so fast that a new building is being constructed in Eindhoven to provide all its researchers with space close to the production floor, including two cleanrooms of four thousand square metres. The company is also working on parts for linear accelerators, intended for use in applications such as treating cancer with proton therapy. The material around the central hub in this accelerator made of oxygen-free copper has a surface roughness requirement of just a few nanometres.

‘So you have to be able to do the machining to extreme precision and work as cleanly as possible,’ Savenije says. ‘These kinds of assignments and these customers enable us to continually expand our horizons. If you want to be a company at the forefront of your field, it’s important to have customers that drive you forward. We’re one of the few companies in the world that can deliver the parts for these linear accelerators.’

Van der Leegte adds: ‘We’re definitely a frontrunner in the market in terms of tolerance and accuracy.’ CERN and PSI also order parts from VDL ETG. In May 2015, the supplier acquired a company in Trubbach, Switzerland that performs system integration on high-precision components, mechatronic systems and complete modules for OEMs in the high-tech capital goods sector, and it now has an official partnership with PSI. ‘We strive to work with these Swiss institutes in order to stay close to fundamental research to support our supply activities. At a later stage, that process can lead to higher-volume production. That’s our core business.’

Savenije adds: ‘Everything we do, we ultimately do to be able to manufacture products in our own plants. We have three locations in the Netherlands and another three in other countries so that we can keep up with and serve our customers there at their request. The Netherlands remains very important to us. If production moves elsewhere, eventually research and development will disappear as well. By working with partners and research institutes in the area, we invest in technology development.’

In addition to exposing the company to talent, says Savenije, it helps the company ready its production technology. ‘That’s part of what keeps us at the forefront of the latest innovations. We try to make sure we’re involved from the start of product development, so the product is designed and developed to be cost-effective to manufacture and so our infrastructure is ready for it.’

This build-to-spec strategy requires that VDL ETG can station developers close to its customers’ development centres, such as in the San Francisco Bay area, Savenije notes. ‘That’s a new challenge, maintaining our collaborative strengths despite all the different time zones and different cultures. We’re going to do that with our own suppliers, too: more collaboration as equals. So they don’t feel inhibited about proposing new ideas. That can be a steep learning curve sometimes.’

The company only has one sentence that’s off limits: ‘‘Yes, but.’ Because that can wreck everything. Instead, you should come up with that one argument why you should do it. Otherwise you’re standing still, and standing still means going backwards. We try to prepare well today for the game tomorrow. It’s exhilarating to get our own suppliers to the same point we and ASML are at in terms of the way we interact. It requires a change of mindset; the supplier has to learn to take greater responsibility and to view that as an exciting challenge.’

At the same time, VDL ETG doesn’t want to infringe on its own customers’ territory. ‘We don’t want to become an OEM; we want to keep being a high-quality supplier,’ says Van der Leegte. ‘That’s what our customers need.’