Plans to build a $10 billion large-format LCD TV panel plant in Mount Pleasant, Wisc. seem to be in doubt, according to reports that surfaced this week.

UPDATE! After this story was posted, a conversation between President Donald Trump and Foxconn Chairman Terry Gou, led to a sudden Sharp/Foxconn statement saying plans to build an LCD panel fab are back on. From the statement, it appears this will be the Gen. 6 Fab announced last summer, meaning it is likely to be targeted at mostly smaller screen devices, and not the large screen 8K LCDs targeted in the original plan.

Sharp, under the direction of majority investor Foxconn Technology Group (based in Taiwan), has reportedly shifted plans for the controversial manufacturing facility for a second time, and is now looking to use the space for the research,  development and production of other products that will be part of the 5G/8K ecosystem.

The latest wrinkle surfaced through a report this week from Reuters, which interviewed Louis Woo, special assistant to Foxconn chairman Terry Gou, as saying Sharp/Foxconn would no longer focus on making LCD panels for displays in Wisconsin. This quickly drew rebuttals from  officials in Mount Pleasant and Racine County who said they were told by the company that plans for some sort of production or development complex were still moving forward, though television panel production no longer factored at the top of list.

The original plans for the operation stirred a lot of controversy (mostly political), when it was learned that the state government was prepared to give the company millions in tax incentives to build the plant there. This was based on the notion that the plant was to bring thousands of new jobs to the area.

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Originally, Sharp/Foxconn had arranged with the help of President Donald Trump to bring the facility to the state of former House Speaker Paul Ryan. The plan was to build a massive 10.5 Gen LCD panel fabrication plant that would be central to the company’s vision of manufacturing large-screen 8K TVs and other devices, which would benefit from growing availability of 5G wireless technology. This affords much greater bandwidth capacity and speeds, which will be useful for streaming massive 8K video streams, as well as many other applications.

But plans for display production were apparently quickly changed in accordance with the shifting dynamics of the big-screen TV market as the groundbreaking drew near. Part of this involved plans to build a Corning Glass facility on the corporate campus to supply the panel fab with needed massive sheets of mother glass. But Corning required a large subsidy to build this plant. So last summer, Foxconn said it was scaling down its plans for the LCD fab to one that would build smaller Gen 6-sized panels, that required smaller sheets of mother glass that could be shipped in from another Corning plant in Kentucky.

According to BizTimes, a Milwaukee-area business news site, Mount Pleasant village president Dave DeGroot, Racine County executive Jonathan Delagrave and Racine County Economic Development Corp. executive director Jenny Trick issued a joint statement Wednesday after the Reuters story appeared saying: “Contrary to what was reported by Reuters, Foxconn reiterated to us, today, its commitment to building an advanced manufacturing operation in Wisconsin.”

Foxconn has said its plans for the facility are now centered on engineering and R&D to develop a (5G/8K) ecosystem of technologies of an unspecified nature rather than creating a single TV manufacturing facility. However, the company has not made clear exactly what the new goal or scope of the latest plan involves. Sharp/Foxconn was originally given control over nearly 800 acres of land to build the 10.5 Gen fab, and a 120,000-square-foot multi-purpose building was constructed on the site. Last fall, prepartory work began on construction of a 3-million-square-foot building pad for an LCD panel fabrication facility, BizTimes reported.

“As Foxconn has previously shared, they are evaluating exactly which type of TFT technology will be manufactured in Wisconsin but are proceeding with construction on related manufacturing, assembly and research facilities on the site in 2019,” the statement from Racine County officials said.

According to BizTimes, Sharp/Foxconn later issued a statement saying it remains committed to the project, that it still intends to create 13,000 jobs, but acknowledged changes within the global market environment had forced a change in plans for the use of the Mount Pleasant project.

Changes in the large-format LCD panel market include the startups this year of 10.5/11 Gen LCD panel fabs in various parts of Asia, offering the potential for a glut in supply of large-format panels, which will force lower prices, and lower profits.

In addition, it’s known that Sharp would like to get back the use of its rights to Sharp brand for TV marketing in North America, but Chinese competitor Hisense USA has licensed that trade name through the next two years. Currently, only one manufacturer — Element — is assembling TVs in the United States which could use the panels coming out of the originally planned Wisconsin fab. And that factory had at one point threatened to close in light of President Trump’s tariffs on certain TV component imports — like LCD panels (which have reportedly be withdrawn from the tariff list).


By Greg Tarr


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