The COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage on worldwide but work still needs to be done at semiconductor manufacturing facilities to keep the supply chain moving, getting devices into the hands of consumers. Equipment must be installed and parts need to be upgraded and serviced to keep them operating in top order.
ASML, a maker of lithography technology for semiconductor manufacturing, is tackling the COVID-19 pandemic by working with semiconductor manufacturers virtually using augmented reality (AR) to help guide them through upgrades or installation processes without being physically at the site.
ASML is using Microsoft Hololens 2 headsets and smartphones to power the AR solution that allows skilled engineers and technicians from ASML to guide someone through remotely connecting cables or installing pieces of equipment. The AR solution has been rolled out to more than 60 ASML customers and the company said this is likely to be a long-term solution moving forward.
“ASML is actively investing in the use of these headsets for the foreseeable future,” said Thomas Weinlandt, team lead for the AR/VR technology at ASML. “The value of AR has been proved beyond a shadow of a doubt through the pilot, and we intend to keep using AR as a core service capability moving forward.”
Previously, ASML would travel globally visiting client sites and supporting the installation of semiconductor equipment. ASML had already been testing AR and virtual reality (VR) as a way to assist in installation and implementation in semiconductor fabs but the coronavirus pandemic kicked the program into high gear and ASML said it took the chance to expand the program in order to conform to social distancing mandates as well as to keep its own employees safe.
Pure play foundry GlobalFoundries (GF) is working with ASML to allow customer support field engineers to use AR to perform actions where they require support from ASML. Before COVID-19, customers were reluctant to allow a camera into their fab due to IP concerns, but GF was the first one to allow cameras and enable AR as part of its service actions. The collaboration was instrumental to figuring out how to work with AR in a way to minimize risk to both ASML and customer IP, Weinlandt said.
While the outbreak of the global pandemic sparked increased use of AR in semiconductor fabs, the long-term value in AR is that it can help with unforeseen escalations, which before would take a minimum of 24 hours to respond, Weinlandt said.
“Individuals from three or four different countries can all be on the same help session working together to see the issue with their own eyes and provide their insights,” Weinlandt said. “In ASML, a given assembly can be installed in Taiwan, integrated and built in the Netherlands, using a design created in the U.S. While before it would be impossible to have representatives from every location and part of the product life cycle to collaborate in person, now we can do it on an almost daily basis.”
While AR won’t replace the experience or expertise of having someone on site to address physically and technically challenging issues, AR allows on-site support engineers to help others with tips and tricks they normally rely on to carry out procedures in the field.
“Putting on an AR headset connected to a chess grandmaster lets you play chess at a grandmaster level; putting on a headset connected to a neurosurgeon wouldn’t let you perform neurosurgery,” Weinlandt said. “There’s a German word, fingerspitzengefuhl, that roughly translates to ‘the feeling in the fingertips.’ While AR allows an expert to give insight and input, there are certain actions you still can’t perform remotely.”