It was exactly a year ago that President Trump pushed a golden shovel into a field in Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin, and broke ground at a planned Foxconn plant he called "The eighth wonder of the world."
"This is one of the big deals ever," he said during the ceremony. The proposed facility would employ more than 13,000 workers in Wisconsin and produce high-resolution LCD screens. And it would be huge, he said. "Remember: more than 20 million feet, and that will probably be a minimal number," he claimed. The factory, Trump said, was proof that he brought production back to the United States, "restoring America's industrial power."
But Foxconn's plans were already shrinking. When Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker brought the company to the state with a grant package totaling $ 4.5 billion, Foxconn had agreed to build a & # 39; Generation 10.5 & # 39; facility that 75 -inch produced LCD screens. But days before Trump & # 39; s groundbreaking, the company recognized it would build a much smaller "Gen6" LCD plant, a type that makes smaller screens and requires fewer employees.
It would be the first of many changes. In the past year, the factory has seen the factory shrink, be canceled, reappear and undergo other shifts described below. Even now, now that concrete is finally being poured, it is unclear what exactly Foxconn is building in Mount Pleasant. Industry experts show that Foxconn's building plans say it doesn't even seem to be the reduced Gen6 LCD plant. If the last year is a guide, the whip saw is by no means over.
May 2018: the shrinking factory
Shortly before the groundbreaking, reports came up that Foxconn had radically reduced its planned factory. The bottleneck was Corning Glass. Large LCDs require glass panels that are too impractical and fragile to ship, so Corning would have to build its own plant on site and would not do so without its own lucrative subsidies. However, a Gen 6 installation produces LCD panels that are small enough to safely bring in glass from elsewhere.
Foxconn first denied the reports, then confirmed while they denied, they were a change of plans at all. The company had always planned a phased approach to construction, Foxconn said, and remained committed to building the larger plant and employing 13,000 people. (The contract with the state of Wisconsin is pretty explicit about building a Gen 10.5, however, and includes an aggressive renting timeline.)
June 2018: AI 8K + 5G
Following the groundbreaking campaign, Foxconn began purchasing buildings throughout Wisconsin to serve as & # 39; innovation centers & # 39 ;. The company said they would employ hundreds of people each serve as the & # 39; cornerstones in the AI 8K + 5G ecosystem that Foxconn is building. & # 39; Exactly what & # 39; AI 8K + 5G & # 39; means, has never been explained coherently.
Although Foxconn said the innovation centers would start at the end of 2018 and early 2019, most centers remain empty. (Foxconn has never issued a promised update or correction to Verge stories with pictures of those empty buildings.) Nevertheless, Foxconn signed a previously announced deal for another building in Madison last week.
August 2018: robots
When Walker and others promoted the project, one of the most important sales arguments was the number of workers who would bring it back to the former production center. The prospect of those jobs disappeared in August when Louis Woo from Foxconn told it The Journal Times that most of the factory work would be automated.
"If you asked me six months ago: what would the mix of labor be? I would split the experience we have in China and say: & # 39; Well, 75 percent assembly line workers, 25 percent engineers and managers, & # 39; "Woo said The Journal Times. "So, ask me the question today, now it looks like about 10 percent of assembly line workers, 90 percent knowledge workers."
Nevertheless, Woo said the company would still employ 2,000 people by the end of 2019, and 13,000 people by 2023. He also said he was "not really interested in (building) television", but instead interested in "vertical solutions" for everything from healthcare to education.
January 2019: the factory disappears
On January 30, Woo barred officials from Wisconsin when he told Reuters that Foxconn did not intend to build a television LCD factory at all because "we can not compete" with low-cost displays built in other countries. Instead, he said the company would focus on research and specialty products for industry, healthcare, and other professions.
When Wisconsin officials voiced consternation, Foxconn released a sketch of a new plan. Over the next 18 months, the company said it would build a plastic processing plant, a back-end packaging plant and other assembly facilities that suggested that Wisconsin would be the final step in assembling materials produced elsewhere. Although this plan could be considered a factory, experts said it would deploy far fewer people and require far fewer investments than an LCD plant. However, Foxconn insisted that it would still achieve its original recruitment and investment goals.
February 2019: the factory is coming back
Two days after Woo told Reuters Foxconn would not build a factory, the company returned and called a "personal conversation" between Foxconn CEO Terry Gou and Trump. Observers such as Greg LeRoy or Good Jobs First, who is following development grants, saw the short cancellation as a test balloon sent to test whether Foxconn could withdraw from an economically unfeasible project without annoying Trump, who was currently waging a trade war against China.
March 2019: The factory is coming back
After months of stasis in Mount Pleasant, Foxconn announced it went ahead with a Gen6 LCD factory, which would be operational by the end of 2020. In the following months, Foxconn began issuing contracts for roads and infrastructure at the production site.
June 2019: Foxconn starts building … something
Foxconn started last week pouring a concrete foundation on the Mount Pleasant site. But exactly what Foxconn is building remains unclear.
Before the work began, Foxconn submitted floor plans to the Wisconsin & # 39; s Department of Safety and Professional Services The edge obtained through a registration request. The plans have been partially edited, but according to Willy Shih, a Harvard Business School professor who has consulted in the screen industry, the foundations and structural support look more like an assembly company than an LCD fab.
A Foxconn spokesperson focused The edge previous statements of confidence in the foundation. During a recent update, a spokesperson for the project's general contractor said that although LCD factories require deep foundations elsewhere, differences in the soil of Wisconsin meant that a clay base would suffice.
"If you wanted to build the actual LCD fab, you would need a lot of steel and you would need a deep, deep base to support it," says Shih. He estimates that the building will receive LCD & # 39; s made elsewhere, then connect electronics and mount it in finished devices.
Paul Semenza, a consultant in the LCD processing industry, agrees: "From what I can see there is no fab in this fab plan."
What the plans include: a "VR experience room", a meditation room, a VIP viewing bridge and various meeting rooms. Additional views released by Mount Pleasant earlier this month note that there will be a "Japanese garden" and provide detailed descriptions of the bushes. However, they say nothing about LCD production. Although the documents refer to the building as "The FAB," all they say about what will happen is that it "will be used to manufacture and assemble a variety of end products, and office / conference room for employees."
Bob O & Brien, the president of Display Supply Chain Consultants, who was recently appointed by Governor Tony Evers in Wisconsin to advise on the LCD industry, has looked at orders from the photolithography equipment and other machines that have an LCD factory would need. Foxconn should order the equipment by the end of June to become operational by the end of 2020, says O & Brien, and he has yet to see orders. That does not mean that Foxconn will not build an LCD plant at all, says O & Brien, but he should give them "all possible benefits of the doubt" to see how the company would achieve its schedule: maybe, for Foxconn for example, could build vibration-damping cushions around the machine or adopt the unusual method of getting equipment from existing factories elsewhere.
Even if Foxconn lays the foundation for its factory, it continues to expand the list of devices that it could make there. First it went from televisions and monitors to "Vertical solutions" for education, healthcare, medicine, entertainment, sports, safety and smart cities. Earlier this month a director said the factory can also produce servers, network products and controls for cars. Although the expanding product line was seen as a sign of Foxconn's commitment, it actually creates more uncertainty about the project. Producing servers is, after all, a very different process than LCD & # 39; s.
Asked if Foxconn built an LCD factory or something else, and if anything else what it could be, the spokespersons for Evers and the state company for economic development postponed to Foxconn. A Foxconn spokesperson referred to The edge to earlier statements stating that the company would build a Gen6 LCD plant that would "produce LCD screens for use in a variety of product applications, including vertical solutions for industries such as education, medical and healthcare, entertainment and sports, security and smart cities. "
One thing that is clear is that the factory will be much smaller than what was originally planned. Instead of the 20 million square meters that Trump announced a year ago, the current facility appears to be slightly less than a million square feet.
Rendering of the Foxconn high-tech campus released in the fall of 2018.
Mount Pleasant spent his time awaiting the factory more than $ 100 million Acquire more than 2,000 acres for Foxconn. The village hurried to move dozens of residents, some pushing to leave under threat of an eminent domain. But now it seems that much of that country will not be needed, at least not quickly. In April, the village almost rented 1,000 hectares back to a farmer who had paid the village $ 1.6 million the year before because the land was unused.
Foxconn says that eventually 13,000 people will still be employed and that this factory is just the initial phase. However, the company says the plant will be online in the fourth quarter of 2020 Gou also recently told reporters that Trump would attend the start of production next May. Foxconn said the factory will employ 1,500 people.
However, the construction plans that Foxconn has submitted to the village show only 570 parking spaces. At the end of last year, the company employed only 156 people in the state. It is possible that Foxconn could redeem the remaining 1,000 employees by filling the current vacant innovation centers, although the current number of employees makes that unusual, and it is probably not what anyone had in mind when they envisaged the return of production jobs to Wisconsin. To put this shortage in perspective, Foxconn & # 39; s original target was to hire 5,200 people next year.
So: one year after the groundbreaking, Foxconn owns a lot of empty office space in Wisconsin, and something is building, but something has gone from the first Gen 10.5 outside of Asia, to a much smaller Gen 6, to an assembly facility, back to a Gen 6, maybe not even that.
And nobody is closer to knowing what an AI 8K + 5G ecosystem really is.