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ASML legend Martin van den Brink: "I'm addicted to complicated problems"
The Wizard of Veldhoven reflects on his career and wonders how long he can (and would want to) go on. What follows is an English translation of the original Dutch article in Financieele Dagblad.
Dutch newspaper Financieele Dagblad reporters Sandra Olsthoorn and Boudewijn Geels published a great interview (in Dutch) with ASML's long-time CTO Martin van den Brink. He reflects on his pioneering career and wonders how long he can (and would want to) go on. He also talks about dealing with immense pressure, the speed of AI development and his reputation as a ‘man without a filter’. I’ve translated the article to unlock this journalistic goodness for everyone who doesn’t read Dutch. All kudos for this piece go to the reporters and the FD.
ASML legend Martin van den Brink: "I'm addicted to complicated problems"
The advice of his press officer: don’t ask Martin van den Brink about the trinkets on his desk, because he’ll go on and on about them.
We do it anyway.
The CTO of ASML grabs the object that is currently top of mind: a steel tube of about 20 centimeters long. “This is the droplet generator. It is pressurized to about 250 bar with liquid tin, which is hotter than 260 degrees Celcius. There should be a nozzle attached to it which vibrates at 50 kilohertz. That’s how it generates droplets of a few megahertz that bind together to 50 kilohertz droplets with a distance of 50 centimeters. Lasers then shoot at these droplets, and…”
The press officer was right.
The essence that shines through in Van den Brink’s story: how to increase the productivity of chip machines without destroying them. “There’s nothing stopping us from putting 1 kilobar of pressure on that nozzle, but there’s no part that you can buy off the shelft that takes such force. So you have to invent it yourself.”
ASML’s chipmachines are a miracle of innovation and collaboration. Supported by a tightly tuned orchestra of about 200 suppliers making unique parts, the Veldhoven-based company is the sole manufacturer of EUV lithography machines. Those are used to produce the smallest, most powerful semiconductors at the heart of our phones and data centers.
Several companies tried their hand at EUV lithography. But where competitors got stuck in endless complications and huge R&D costs, ASML pushed on under the technical leadership of Van den Brink.
The machines, which are about as big as a city bus and sell for 160 million Euro, made ASML “the most important company you don’t know about.” They are so crucial for technological progress that The Netherlands has banned their sale to China, after heavy pressure from the United States. Goal: slowing China’s march to global tech power. To put it mildly: Beijing is not amused.
It’s a sensitive subject that Van den Brink (Bennekom, 1957) would rather steer clear from. Above all, he’s the technologist. The dyslectic genius with a vocational education is a key reason for the success of Philips spin-off ASML. Current market valuation: 237 billion Euro, versus a ‘mere’ 184 billion Euro for Shell and 133 billion Euro for Unilever. The wall of his boardroom-like office is adorned with international decorations.
For those that know him, he’s certainly no diplomat. Plenty of people, even those at the highest echelons, have whimpered in meetings. But on this grey Monday morning on the 19th floor of the ASML tower, he seems in good spirits.
Is the starting point for developing ASML’s machines: we should be able to do it, unless there’s a law of nature that says we cannot?
“The latter is a given. But even then there are enough problems to tackle. A machine consists out of thousands of parts, it’s expensive because of that, and it’s built to deliver extreme performance round the clock.”
So the base line is: yes we can?
“There are people that come in here saying: everything is possible. That’s when I hit the brakes. And when people say: this is impossible, that’s when I go full throttle. I’m the moderator in a panel of optimists and pessimists.”
Over the decades, you’ve built a formidable reputation for persistence.
“Well, I can make decisions quite easily and then think: would that actually work? It’s an ambiguity that sits well with me. But that doesn’t go for everyone.”
He thinks. “Actually I’m saying that for the most part, this is intuitive. And maybe it is.”
In James Bond movies, the villain kidnaps someone like you so they can force you to replicate your invention.
He grins. “It can be much worse: I’ve never seen a James Bond movie where a company gets an export restriction to China. You’re personifying this. That’s not right. We invest 3,5 billion Euro in our R&D every year. We’ve got 25,000 people working in R&D. The only things that remain in this position are to try and keep control, to choose your battles and to watch out for complacency.”
Is that something you come across sometimes?
“Yes. And that angers me. It’s not something that supposed to happen these days, I know, but it happens. I should watch out with that, because before you know it you’re the old geezer that’s always whining about everything. So yeah.”
You do have a certain reputation.
A short pause. “I don’t know about that. I certainly reflect on how my behavior may come across. But I don’t feel like that’s a point of discussion.”
Haven’t you grown milder over the years?
“I consider myself tolerant to mistakes. My energy never goes to the person, but always to the mistake itself: what happened here, and how can we fix it?”
Do you think you are able to get that across properly? That your emotion goes to the problem instead of the person reponsible?
“Well, that’s complicated. But it usually turns out fine.”
Non-techies may think that solving a technical problem is an intellectual challenge. Does it something require emotion to push on?
“For me, emotion is an important part of the job, communicating with people. You have to be able to be disappointed. You have to be able to say that something should not have happened and should be fixed. And when something fails time and time again and it turns out that someone didn’t research the problem properly: yes, then I can get angry.”
You have the end responsibility for success or failure. That pressure must be enormous.
“That’s right. I have to weigh the risks: can we do it? That’s exciting, a lot of money is involved, and contracts have often been signed already. But it’s all relative. When I just started working here, with a small team, I felt that responsibility as well. I thought: wow, what a complicated machine. You start from scratch again and again and grow along with your role.”
Do you get used to success?
“No, it shouldn’t be something to get used to. Of course it does. But it shouldn’t. You cannot allow it to get under your skin, where you start thinking: I have a magic wand that turns everything I touch into a working machine. Because it doesn’t work like that.
I’m glad that I’m not building an airplane engine, which is another terribly complex thing down to the details. Because there’s no room for error. At ASML, we constantly let things go wrong, where the customer also shows some tolerance—as long as it gets solved. Because if we don’t innovate, their productivity doesn’t go up. It’s all about understanding how much risk a customer can take, and how much we can take. But that’s a very different risk from building an airplane. Or a nuclear power plant.”
It’s almost like you’re comforting yourself and your team: people won’t die when you make mistakes.
“Well, we also do some dangerous stuff. We work with hydrogen for example, a dangerous substance in any application. But that’s all about machine safety, not human safety. And maybe not even about safety, but more about performance risks.”
ASML could come to fruition in the 1980s because a group of Philips researchers was left alone to do explore and experiment. Nowadays, that kind of freedom in work is pretty much gone, or so it seems. Is this the right environment for a new ASML?
“Well, this could be the starting point of an entirely new interview, because it’s all about how technology develops. The first lithography machines was made by a team of ten engineers. Today’s machines are so complex that it takes tens of thousands of people and a highly specialized supply chain. Similarly, I can no longer take apart a radio only to reassemble it, something I used to be able to do.”
You seem irreplacable, but you’re 65 years old. Can you imagine a future in which you no longer have this role, and instead work on cars in your home of Moergestel? Or is that too basic for someone with your skills?
“I do think that I’m addicted to complicated problems, yes. I don’t feel like I could easily apply my skills elsewhere if I were to stop. An example: I try to save some energy at home. I work on it with an electrical engineer, but I’m working at a different pace. I’d say: right, we’ll do this like that. And you see that man wonder…”
Grinning: “Well, he wonders a lot. So that creates tension. Look, my term at ASML is ending next year. If people here would like me to continue another term, I will ask myself: do I want this? Can I do this? It’s not that you determine yourself whether you can be useful. But you’re still the one that has to do it. So you need to have the energy.”
How are the energy levels?
“That's a complicated question. I'll leave you to determine that.”
Dealing with a cold, but otherwise fine.
He nods contently. "I ride my bike every day. Not today though, because I indeed have a cold and it was raining cats and dogs."
Do you ever think about what's being done with your technology? Where are you in the debate on AI? Are those developments going to fast?
"It's a lot like the first steam train from Haarlem to Amsterdam. People thought it was a spooky thing. The cows would be startled and give bad milk. That's all turned out fine. AI is already everywhere, also at ASML, to help us do the most complex computations. The idea of stopping its development because of the lack of control is something I find peculiar. I do think that governments should regulate where needed.”
Are governments capable? It's very complex.
“Certainly. That's why you should involve engineers.”
We cannot dodge the China topic. ASML finds itself in the middle of a geopolitical battle. How do you experience that?
A restful sigh. "I feel honored, because it means that we have impact. Is that answer good enough for you? Imagine this: 39 years ago, nobody knew what you were talking about when you said you worked at ASML. So it's pretty remarkable when presidents decide to get involved.”
You're the technologist. You leave the geopolitics to your colleagues with pleasure?
“It's much worse. Those colleagues leave the game to the politicians with pleasure. Because our influence is quite limited.”