Illinois and Wisconsin have a long, long love-hate relationship. That’s especially true in the border region, which includes ASSEMBLY magazine's main office in Deerfield, IL (the state line is just a short drive up I-94).
Most of the good-natured rivalry is due to professional sports teams. This time of the year, it’s Cubs vs. Brewers. In a few short months, the friendly banter will shift to Bears vs. Packers.
But, lately, there’s been a new source of pride and envy stoking the rivalry between these two Midwestern states—manufacturing.
For most of the 20th century, Illinois (Chicago and Rockford, in particular) was a stalwart of American manufacturing. The state’s factories poured out an endless variety of products—everything from bicycles and radios to furniture and machine tools.
Unfortunately, the Land of Lincoln has lost some of its luster in recent decades. For a variety of reasons (inept politicians, among others), my home state has taken a back seat to the friendly folks from up the coast.
Meanwhile, across the border in Wisconsin, things have been much brighter lately. The “land of cheese” also has a long, proud history of manufacturing a diverse array of products. Over the years, I’ve had a chance to visit factories that mass-produce everything from fire engines to lawnmowers and plumbing fixtures to solar panels.
Lately, the business climate has been getting even brighter in the badger state. In fact, Wisconsin has been at the epicenter of U.S. manufacturing this past week.
Yesterday, Foxconn Technology Group (formally known as Hon Hai Precision Industry Co.), the world's largest contract manufacturer, formally announced plans to invest a whopping $10 billion into a large factory that will produce liquid crystal display panels and screens for use in aircraft, automobiles, computers, smartphones, TVs and other products. The one-of-a-kind plant would be the only one outside of Southeast Asia.
Foxconn also plans to invest more than $14 billion for two new assembly plants in China—a display facility in Guangzhou and a smartphone factory in Nanjing. That sure is a lot of infrastructure investment at one time, which makes me question when (and if) the company will build a huge facility a short distance from ASSEMBLY.
For some odd reason, the exact location of the proposed Wisconsin operation has not been disclosed. Most observers believe it will be in either Janesville or Kenosha (two cities in Southeast Wisconsin that have been economically depressed because of shuttered auto plants).
The former town was home to a large GM facility that mass-produced Chevys until it closed almost a decade ago, while the latter was home to a succession of Nash Motors Co., American Motors Corp. and Chrysler assembly lines until the late 1980s.
Some pundits speculate that Foxconn’s mega-factory will never materialize. And, if it does, the plant may end up creating much fewer than the promised 13,000 new jobs (due to automation).
Personally, I have a hard time grasping the proposed size of this plant. The official announcement claims that it will be “a manufacturing campus comprising multiple buildings totaling 20 million square feet.”
Some of those numbers appear to be rather suspicious. I’ll buy 2 million square feet, but not 20 million. That sure is an awful lot of space.
I recently visited a tractor manufacturer in the Midwest that operates a 1 million square foot plant comprised of several buildings. I thought that was a lot of space—I simply can’t imagine a facility 20 times that size.
To put things in perspective, Boeing's legendary assembly plant in Everett, WA (home to the 747, 777 and 787 jetliners), which is often considered to be one of the largest factories in the world, would be dwarfed in comparison to what Foxconn proposes to build in Wisconsin.
Why do you need that much space to build LCDs? Hmmmm . . . I think some politicians may be pulling a cow chip or two out of their back pockets.
Speaking of chips, Wisconsin also made the headlines earlier this week for an entirely different reason. A local manufacturer announced that it plans to implant tiny radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips into its worker’s hands.
It claims that the devices will allow employees to log onto computers, use copy machines, open doors and perform other basic office tasks. In the future, the technology initiative may be expanded to include plant-floor applications.
Three Square Market produces vending machines and kiosks in River Falls, WI (a suburb of Minneapolis/St. Paul). It’s partnering with a Swedish company called BioHax International. Employees will have the option to "voluntarily" implant an RFID microchip between their thumb and forefinger underneath the skin.
Despite numerous benefits, some privacy groups have raised concerns about this and questioned the futuristic application. For instance, will this create a “big brother is watching” scenario?
Only time will tell. In the months ahead, I plan to keep a close eye on both of these interesting developments coming out of America’s Dairyland. I’ll also be on the lookout for low-flying cow chips.