Foxconn Technology Group shifted its stated strategy for its planned Wisconsin complex yet again Friday, crediting a conversation with President Donald Trump for cementing plans to proceed with building a factory to make high-tech liquid display screens.
The news capped a week of confusion about Foxconn’s plans in Wisconsin. The company announced in 2017, to much fanfare, that it planned to invest $10 billion in the state and hire 13,000 people to build an LCD factory that could make screens for televisions and a variety of other devices.
The company last year said it was reducing the scale of what was to be made in Wisconsin, from what is known as a Gen 10 factory to Gen 6. But this week, even that was thrown into question when Foxconn executive Louis Woo said it couldn’t compete in the television screen market and would not be making LCD panels in Wisconsin.
But on Friday, in yet another twist, Foxconn said after discussions with the White House and a personal conversation between Trump and Foxconn chairman Terry Gou, it plans to proceed with the smaller manufacturing facility.
“Great news on Foxconn in Wisconsin after my conversation with Terry Gou!” Trump tweeted.
Wisconsin’s new Democratic governor criticized the company Friday for its flip-flopping.
“There’s no limit, frankly, to skepticism if the messaging isn’t coherent,” Evers told reporters. “I’m comfortable that they’re still committed to the state. They’re committed to this Generation 6 technology, but that doesn’t mean that we (won’t) encourage them to be more transparent and consistent in their messaging.”
The latest Foxconn statement did not say whether the commitment to this size factory would affect the type of workers who would be employed in Wisconsin. Woo told Reuters earlier this week that about three-quarters of workers in Wisconsin would be in research and development-type jobs, not manufacturing. Woo said the Wisconsin project would be more of a research hub than a manufacturing site.
A Foxconn spokeswoman had no immediate comment about what its plans to build the “Gen 6” factory would mean for the makeup of the workforce.
The main difference between a “Gen 10” and “Gen 6” plant is the size of the original glass used to make the screens. The larger plant, which had been part of Foxconn’s initial plans, would have used glass more than three times bigger than what the smaller facility will use. The “Gen 6” plant can make screens ranging in size from a smartphone to a 75-inch television, while the larger plant would have allowed for devices as large as 9½ feet by 11 feet.
The “Gen 6” plant is expected to be smaller in size and less expensive than a “Gen 10” factory, but Foxconn has not specified just how large it will be.
Foxconn, the world’s largest electronics company, said Friday the campus will house both an advanced manufacturing facility and a center of “technology innovation for the region.”
Local Wisconsin government and economic development officials where the Foxconn campus is located praised the news, saying construction of the “Gen 6” factory will coincide with construction of other related buildings over the next 18 months.
Wisconsin promised nearly $4 billion in state and local tax incentives to Foxconn if it invested $10 billion and created 13,000 jobs for the project, which Trump heralded last year as the “eighth wonder of the world.”
But Foxconn has repeatedly revised its plans for what will be made in Wisconsin and who will work there, causing confusion in the state and leading critics of the project this week to accuse Foxconn of a “bait and switch.”
The original deal was struck by then-Gov. Scott Walker and Trump. Evers, Wisconsin’s current governor who used Walker’s support for Foxconn against him in the race, was a critic of the project during the campaign but has said this week he’s working closely with Foxconn on the project.
Foxconn earlier this week cited a changing global market as requiring a move away from making LCD panels in Wisconsin. Apple is Foxconn’s main manufacturing customer, and that company has forecast a drop in revenue from the Chinese market due to decreasing demand for iPhones.
Alex Weeks, an Edison Middle School student, spent hours in her school’s technology lab designing a blue-and-white plastic 3D model of nuclear particle accelerator equipment.
Weeks was at the downtown Janesville offices of SHINE Medical Technologies on Thursday afternoon, waiting on deck as one of several students who had built models in a contest SHINE launched six months ago with the Janesville School District.
The company wanted middle and high school students to design a prototype for its Illuminator Award, an employee award of excellence.
Weeks’ model—a set of interlocking plastic pieces she produced using a 3D printer—had a tube that fit a small laser pointer.
Slid in place inside the model, the laser pointer is supposed to replicate the business end of SHINE’s particle accelerator technology: a beam of super-accelerated, blue-purple plasma that zaps a target of liquid, low-enriched uranium to create medical molybdenum-99.
Nuclear physicists at SHINE who end up with Weeks’ model on their desks can remove the laser pointer from the model and use it for whatever purpose they want.
Likely, it would be good for pointing out something scientific.
Weeks and several other students have worked since last fall to design 3D models SHINE could use for its award. Under parameters laid out in the contest, the awards had to be a certain size and dimension, incorporate SHINE’s particle accelerator technology, and feature a splash of creativity and usefulness.
“We didn’t want the typical glass star that gathers dust on your shelf. We wanted to create something fun—not boring,” SHINE Vice President Katrina Pitas said.
Cheryl Peterson, SHINE community employment and engagement manager, said “a light bulb went on” last year that a contest might get students interested in the medical radioisotope technology SHINE plans to use.
The project also incorporated science, technology, engineering and math learning for a unique purpose, she said.
Edison Principal Jim LeMire and technology education teacher Carl Schenzel said the project immersed the students in problem-solving, creativity and teamwork.
This spring, SHINE likely will break ground in Janesville on the first fully integrated medical moly-99 manufacturing and distribution plant built in the U.S. in decades.
By 2021, the company hopes to ramp up operations and begin to grab a large piece of the domestic and international market for moly-99, a material that illuminates body tissue and bones in tests for cancer and heart disease.
The students had some early failures on their project, said Edison eighth-grader Aiden VanTuyl, Weeks’ partner.
He said an S-shaped prototype they designed got stuck in the 3-D printer’s scaffolding and became a misshapen, chewed-up wreck of plastic filament. VanTuyl and Weeks had to scramble to right the ship, spending hours after school working up a new design.
Over several snow days this week, Weeks’ and VanTuyl’s crew put the final touches on their models and presentations. They were anxious that the weather cancellations would prevent them from readying their final pitch to a panel of seasoned nuclear engineers.
No pressure, middle-schoolers.
“Welcome to the real world,” LeMire told Weeks and VanTuyl, delivering them a dose of playful tough love. “It’s the real world of deadlines.”
Weeks and VanTuyl did fine. Their project won first prize in the contest Thursday.
Their reward? The pair will get to tour SHINE’s test and demonstration facility and see the nuclear particle accelerator technology that inspired their 3D mock-up.
Tracy Radel, lead nuclear engineer on SHINE’s project, asked the two students to explain how 3D printing technology works. Radel said she had never used a 3D printer.
LeMire said it’s humbling for him to see students learn to use technology their parents might not understand.
“It’s a younger person’s game,” he said. “You’ve just got to give them the framework of the experience and stand back and watch it put the hook in them.”
VanTuyl said if he had to pick an occupation tomorrow, he probably would want to design and build machines.
Weeks said she is interested in engineering or architecture.
She said the SHINE project marked a turning of the tide in her life.
“During the project, my parents had to do my chores,” she said. “I was too busy with my work on this.”
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