Last updated on July 2nd, 2019 at 09:12 pm
The lure of Foxconn Technology Group’s planned $1.4 billion in purchases from Wisconsin companies has prompted nearly 800 businesses to put their information on the Wisconsin Supply Chain Marketplace, but what Foxconn will actually need from those companies and how firms can interact with the Taiwanese tech giant remains a bit of a mystery.
“That’s a big pie to break down and really think what all those services are going to look like,” said Jela Trask, business and investment attraction director at Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., during a panel discussion at last week’s Manufacturing Matters conference in Milwaukee.
The Marketplace, an online tool developed by Green Bay-area economic development group The New North with support from WEDC, allows companies to create profiles to detail the markets the company serves and where it is strongest.
Trask acknowledged businesses might feel like the Marketplace is a black hole, but added it is the best approach for companies looking to do business with Foxconn at this point.
“As soon as there’s something to hear, you will definitely hear it,” Trask told attendees at the conference organized by the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership.
She said the opportunities to work with Foxconn will break down into three phases, starting with construction. She disputed that a general contractor has been named – BizTimes reported earlier this year that Foxconn had selected Gilbane Building Co. – but said the agency will be pushing for Wisconsin companies to be the first choice for construction work.
Gilbane is based in Rhode Island but has a presence in Milwaukee. The company previously partnered with local firm C.G. Schmidt as a general contractor for the Northwestern Mutual Tower and Commons.
The next phase will be initial assembly work, Trask said. The first building Foxconn plans to construct on its Mount Pleasant campus is a 1.5 million-square-foot assembly facility where it can put together televisions and displays.
The final phase would be the actual fabrication of generation 10.5 LCD panels, which will come when Foxconn completes the buildout of its Mount Pleasant campus. BizTimes detailed the potential suppliers Foxconn could turn to in a special report last year.
Supporters of the Foxconn project have often talked about the company bringing upward of 150 suppliers with it from Asia. Trask said WEDC isn’t entirely sure how many companies would be following Foxconn.
The biggest supplier, first discussed during hearings for the Foxconn legislation, would be the glass-maker Corning Inc. The company would likely build a Gen 10.5 glass plant on the Foxconn campus. Corning brought the first such plant in the world online last year in China, two years after announcing the $1.3 billion investment with BOE Technology Group Co. Ltd. in late 2015. Corning has not commented on a potential plant in Wisconsin.
Trask said it is hard to fault Foxconn for potentially relying on existing relationships with its tier one suppliers, especially considering some are so specialized that there are only one or two suppliers in the world.
She said there will be opportunities for Wisconsin companies to be suppliers at lower tiers, but added WEDC does not have all the specifics yet. Foxconn is hiring a dedicated supply chain leader in the state and Trask said she views that position as her counterpart. The plan is to use the leverage the information gathered in the Supply Chain Marketplace to make connections to Wisconsin companies.
Buckley Brinkman, executive director and chief executive officer of the Wisconsin Center for Manufacturing and Productivity, told conference attendees if they wait to hear from Foxconn or WEDC, it will likely be too late to take advantage of the available opportunities.
“We’re in the Olympics now,” Brinkman said.
He suggested companies figure out how to address or improve their approach to advanced manufacturing technology and workforce challenges. He advocated companies consider what small things they can do to prepare in the short-run and to do an honest self-assessment of how they are positioned to potentially work with Foxconn.
Chris Murdoch, senior advisor for Foxconn and the company’s first Wisconsin hire, said in the five months he’s been with the company, he’s been struck by the scale of Foxconn and what people don’t know about it.
“It’s not only a big company, it also has a broad scope,” he said, noting while it has a legacy in contract electronics manufacturing, Foxconn has expanded to also address logistics, cloud services, high-performance computing, data centers, cameras and e-commerce.
“At its core, it’s a technology company,” Murdoch said, adding that Foxconn is used to dealing with extremely demanding precision requirements while also handling rapid changes in technology. “It may be something that you’re not used to. This company embraces change. It has to to survive.”
He also told attendees to be aware Foxconn is a Taiwanese company that is adapting its operations to a very different corporate culture in Wisconsin and the United States.
“I had no idea how different the cultures are,” Murdoch acknowledged, pointing to differences in value placed on age, communication style and corporate hierarchy. “The cultural issues are real.”
He said Foxconn is currently working to identify potential logistical issues like how much steel the manufacturing campus will require – the estimate is about 150,000 tons – or how to get specialized equipment from Asia to Milwaukee and then down to Mount Pleasant.
The former U.S. Navy pilot said he’s proud to be part of a project that would bring electronics manufacturing back to the U.S.
“I think about this project as a remarkable opportunity,” he said.