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The Korea Herald
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THE INVESTOR
April 24, 2024

Market Now

[KH explains] Will ‘chip alliance’ help Samsung, SK secure more ASML machines?

  • PUBLISHED :December 14, 2023 - 09:41
  • UPDATED :December 14, 2023 - 09:41
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From left: SK Group Chairman Chey Tae-won, ASML CEO Peter Wennink, President Yoon Suk Yeol, King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands and Samsung Electronics Chairman Lee Jae-yong hold a roundtable meeting at the Dutch company's headquarters in Veldhoven, the Netherlands, Tuesday. (Yonhap)

As global chipmakers are competing fiercely to get their hands on ASML's scarce extreme ultraviolet lithography equipment, the enhanced chip partnership between South Korea and the Netherlands this week is creating an upbeat mood for the Korean chip industry.

On Tuesday, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and the chiefs of the country's top two conglomerates -- Samsung Electronics Chairman Lee Jae-yong and SK Group Chairman Chey Tae-won -- met with Dutch King Willem-Alexander and ASML CEO Peter Wennink in the Netherlands to boost bilateral ties in the semiconductor sector.

"The Korean president's visit to the ASML is unprecedented, and we will have to see how it plays out. But the collaboration agreements would help Korean companies build stronger bonds with the Dutch firm," an industry official said under the condition of anonymity.

ASML is the sole manufacturer of EUV equipment -- a key system for producing the world's most advanced semiconductor chips with nodes at 7 nanometers and below -- with unrivaled technology.

As semiconductors have become a strategic asset for countries, securing an order of ASML's EUV equipment, of which, only 40 to 50 units per year are produced, has become a mission for global chip suppliers and governments. It is no exception for Samsung Electronics and SK hynix, the world's two-largest memory chipmakers.

"It is the first time for a foreign leader to tour ASML's headquarters and its new cleanroom. This event shows the deep trust the Dutch government and the firm have in Korea, and also their strong desires for collaboration," Kim Tae-hyo, the first deputy director of the National Security Office said in a press briefing on Wednesday.

Science Minister Lee Jong-ho also touted the renewed chip partnership, saying "I hope the recent agreements play as an advantage for Korea to secure orders of the equipment (from ASML)."

The Korean government's push for a chip alliance with the Netherlands is helpful for companies, another industry official said under the condition of anonymity, as the European country "aligns its geopolitical stance with the United States in the semiconductor sector."

"While this week's agreements do not specifically address EUV equipment purchases, it will hopefully have positive effects in future deals," he added.

Samsung eyes increasing its share in the global foundry market dominated by Taiwan's TSMC. The Korean company also seeks to expand its logic chips business, and the Dutch company's EUV machine is seen as the key to achieving the advancement.

SK hynix also utilizes the EUV equipment to produce its cutting-edge memory chips.

Korean chipmakers do not disclose the number of EUV equipment they purchase, as it is considered a business secret that can reveal their operational capacity. According to industry sources, Samsung reportedly has some 40 pieces of EUV equipment while TSMC has about 100 units. SK hynix reportedly acquired a number of ASML equipment in the single digits.

The two companies have reportedly made orders for ASML's next-generation high-numerical aperture EUV lithography scanner equipment as well. ASML is preparing to launch the product for the first time in the industry in the coming months.

The high-NA EUV equipment raised the lens numerical aperture -- indicating its light-collecting ability -- from 0.33 to 0.55, allowing chip manufacturers to utilize ultrafine patterning technology to produce 2nm node chips.

ASML is expected to supply 10 units of the High-NA in the market next year, and Intel reportedly secured six of them. The Dutch firm said it aims to increase the annual production of the new product to 20 in the coming years.

While it is up to ASML to decide to whom it will sell its high-specification equipment, it would consider many bargaining factors, including national interest and its relations with industry players, industry watchers say.

ASML would likely care about its relations not only with the buyer itself but also with the customers the buyer has. Chip design houses, such as Qualcomm and Intel would want their partnering foundries to secure the advanced EUV equipment to guarantee the quality of their products, one of the industry officials explained.

On Tuesday, Samsung Electronics and ASML agreed to invest jointly about 1 trillion won ($762 million) to build a research facility in South Korea for the development of "ultra-microscopic" level semiconductor production technology, using next-generation extreme ultraviolet photolithography equipment.

SK hynix also forged an agreement with the Dutch firm to collaborate on developing an eco-friendly technology aimed at minimizing energy consumption when using EUV technology in chipmaking, South Korea's Industry Ministry said.

ASML's EUV equipment is at the "top level" and its supremacy in the technology will stand for a long time, and it would be important for chipmakers to build strong bonds with the company, industry officials here say.

In Korea, ASML is also currently building a repair center and an engineer training facility in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi Province, investing 240 billion won until 2025.

By Jo He-rim (herim@heraldcorp.com)

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