Foxconn exec pushes for manufacturers to be flexible, collaborative

Last updated on July 2nd, 2019 at 09:11 pm

In an era of rapidly advancing technology, manufacturers will increasingly need to be flexible and collaborative to be successful, Bill Mitchell, chief executive officer of Foxconn subsidiary Aguila told attendees at Manufacturing Matters on Thursday.

Bill Mitchell

Aguila handles portions of Foxconn’s logistics and distribution operations. Mitchell was also part of site selection efforts when the company initially decided to locate a $10 billion manufacturing campus in Wisconsin in the summer of 2017.

“In just that amount of time so much has changed about the way things are done and what gets done,” he told attendees at the annual conference run by the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership.

He said companies need to develop long-term strategic plans while also allowing for flexibility. He said many companies are hurt by holding on to what has helped them reach their current position instead of adapting to things that can propel them forward.

“Most of us are held back more by fear than we are advanced by faith,” he said, encouraging companies to step out and do something different.

Foxconn originally announced it would build a Gen. 10.5 thin-film-transistor LCD fabrication facility in Wisconsin. The operation would have produced massive display screens for large televisions but the company has since opted for a Gen. 6 plant to focus on smaller screens. Initially, the company has set up television assembly operations at a leased facility in Mount Pleasant.

Speaking to reporters after his remarks, Mitchell said he could not speak to the specifics of the Foxconn project, including the number of televisions the company is currently producing, where they are being sold or what types of jobs the company will eventually create.

Mitchell’s work since Foxconn chose Wisconsin has included evaluating potential suppliers for operations in the state, including meeting with upwards of 500 companies.

“One of the things that’s amazed me is their flexibility,” Mitchell said of Wisconsin companies.

He said initially Foxconn was relying on connections and relationships and did not have a good way of evaluating whether it was using the best local partner. Foxconn and state officials have since collaborated to develop a vendor readiness program that evaluates potential suppliers based on core capabilities, customer data and ability to adapt to emerging technologies.

“We’re not building a supply chain. We’re curating an ecosystem,” Mitchell said Thursday.

Foxconn’s plans in Wisconsin have included the idea of an 8K+5G ecosystem since the project was first announced. With no television or display manufacturing currently existing in the state, it has not been clear what the ecosystem will include.

Mitchell said an ecosystem focuses on companies working together to be faster and accomplish more than they could individually.

“From an ecosystem standpoint, I think there’s enough business to go around for everybody and if we can come together with people who might be in a competitive space and work together and learn from each other, then we’re all going to get better,” he said.

Speed has been a major component of the Foxconn project in Wisconsin from the start. It was just three months from the company’s first meeting with then-Gov. Scott Walker to a formal announcement in July 2017. At the time, supporters suggested the company could break ground by the fall. Ultimately, earth moving work started in Mount Pleasant in the spring of 2018.

More recently, the project has shown signs of slowing down. The company fell short of its hiring target for 2018 and said it had shifted hiring plans in response to global markets. Foxconn also reconsidered what kind of thin-film-transistor technology it would employ before again committing to building a Gen. 6 plant last month.

On Thursday, Mitchell analogized the speed of the project to building, flying and redesigning an airplane at the same time.

“It’s exciting to me for a company that is as large as us to go as fast as we do,” he said.  “You can’t wait for things to happen or you’ll be left behind. If you figure out all of the details, and I’m not saying this is true of Foxconn but for any company, if you wait until you figure out all of the details before you leave the runway, sometimes, in this day and age, with the advance of technology, you’re not going to be able to continue to be competitive.”

Mitchell recounted an early meeting with one company where he did not have answers to a number of questions the company had. Eventually the woman Mitchell was meeting with suggested Foxconn was operating as a multi-billion dollar startup.

“Yeah, that’s kind of what we are,” Mitchell said. “And we’re figuring it out as we go.”

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Arthur covers banking and finance and the economy at BizTimes while also leading special projects as an associate editor. He also spent five years covering manufacturing at 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.

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