Exec explains Foxconn’s plans for smart manufacturing, data centers

New building plans submitted to village

Foxconn Industrial Internet manufacturing facility
A rendering of the Foxconn Industrial Internet smart manufacturing facility.

Like many things with the Foxconn project, plans for the smart manufacturing center proposed by Foxconn Industrial Internet on the company’s Mount Pleasant campus have evolved.

“When we first had the concept for it, the idea was you could take a sheet of metal in one side and out the other side would pop a high performance computing server,” said Richard Vincent, chief business officer of Fii. “Now that we’ve been on the ground for a little while we’ve recognized that that is one potential application, but we see lots of other applications.”

The smart manufacturing center is a 260,000-square-foot facility that will be located on the eastern side of the campus. It will primarily manufacture components for server racks and is scheduled for occupancy in September 2020, according to a project narrative submitted to the village.

The factory is separate from the nearly 1 million-square-foot Gen 6 LCD fabrication facility that Foxconn is also building on the campus.

Vincent said Fii will need to run the factory differently from its facilities in China, which primarily produce a high volume of products with little variation.

“That model doesn’t work in North America in the electronics space. It just doesn’t make sense from a cost standpoint,” he said. “We’re designing the factory to be a high-mix, low- to medium- volume factory in North America but utilizing all of the high-performance, high-capacity capability we have in China.”

Foxconn Industrial Internet manufacturing facility
A rendering of the Foxconn Industrial Internet smart manufacturing facility. Rendering: Eppstein Uhen Architects.

Vincent said the company plans to incorporate robotics, automated vehicles, automation and artificial intelligence into the smart manufacturing center.

The factory is one of two buildings Fii has submitted plans for to the village. The plan commission is set to review the proposal next week.

The other facility is a spherical-shaped data center that was unveiled Thursday. The company has asked the village to put those plans on hold while it considers design alternatives for the building. In a statement, Foxconn said its commitment to the project remains unchanged despite putting the plans on hold.

“Foxconn continues to evaluate additional design options for a High-Performance Data Center (HPDC) that meets the needs of the company, as well as the needs of business, academic and community partners,” the statement said. “Once completed, a HPDC will be able to leverage computing capabilities to support AI initiatives, advanced manufacturing, and further attract business development and partnerships.”

Vincent said the data center will help Fii offer technology solutions to customers and partners and the company decided it was best to build its own capabilities onsite.

“In order to do a lot of AI you need very fast computers,” he said. “To enable both what we’re trying to do and what we’re trying to do for the community, we need the ability to have high-performance computing.”

Rendering: Eppstein Uhen Architects.
A rendering of the Fii data center. The company is reviewing design alternatives Rendering: Eppstein Uhen Architects.

What Fii, a publically traded company spun out from Foxconn Technology Group last year, is trying to do is take the cloud and networking components it produces and turn them into “whole solutions.”

“In the short term, we’ve settled in on enabling people to use AI in very specific ways,” Vincent said.

The idea is that bringing technologies the company has in Asia to Wisconsin will allow Fii to build businesses and in turn grow revenue. More revenue will lead to more hiring.

“If we don’t have technology, there’s no way to have this be sustainable,” Vincent said. “We want to be here for a long time. If we just come in and do a flash in the pan, that doesn’t do anybody any good.”

He added that the manufacturing facility would allow Fii to showcase technology.

“Building a manufacturing plant basically does two things for us,” Vincent said. “It gives us a platform that shows people that this technology actually works and is validate-able. … and it brings a manufacturing base to Wisconsin in a way that it hasn’t had before.”

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Arthur Thomas
Arthur covers manufacturing for BizTimes. He previously was managing editor at The Waukesha Freeman. He is a graduate of Carroll University and did graduate coursework at Marquette. A native of southeastern Wisconsin, he is also a nationally certified gymnastics judge and enjoys golf on the weekends.