The “smart future” that Foxconn officials envision for Wisconsin could include infrastructure laced with technological and green-energy innovations — as well as a workforce augmented by automation, a company executive said Wednesday.
Speaking in Madison at a summit organized by the business group Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, Alan Yeung, Foxconn director of U.S. strategic initiatives, called on state officials to consider investing in the sort of high-tech infrastructure that could make it easier to transport goods and people to and from the company’s regional offices in various parts of the state. As an example of what he meant, Yeung spoke of “smart roads,” which would have technological features to help direct autonomous vehicles’ navigation systems.
“I would challenge us to think about what infrastructure spending and investment we would be doing now that would cause us to look back and say, ‘Ah ha, that was a good investment,'” Yeung said.
Yeung said Wisconsin has made wise investments in energy infrastructure, giving it some of the lowest prices in the country. Those low costs, he said, were one of the “prime reasons” Foxconn chose to build a massive manufacturing complex in Mount Pleasant, he said.
Yeung also spoke about the company’s plans to seek out local residents to work in its factory, as well as spend money on automation. His remarks came several weeks after company officials publicly disputed reports that they were considering recruiting workers from China to make up for a lack of talent in Wisconsin. Company officials have said as many as 90 percent of the 13,000 workers the company has committed to hiring would be engineers and other sorts of white-collar employees.
Yeung said one of Foxconn’s priorities is to make technology play a bigger part in Wisconsin’s economy. He said he and his colleagues intend to support infrastructure projects to help bring the state closer to that goal.
Foxconn stands to receive as much as $4.5 billion worth of state and local subsidies in return for building its factory in Mount Pleasant. In recent months, the company has opened a handful of satellite offices, dubbed “innovation centers,” in various corners of the state. In early October, for instance, Foxconn bought a building in downtown Racine to house a research and development center that would be used to test transportation networks, inspire innovative city planning and promote the use of green energy, among other things.
Yeung said researchers there could end up working on smart roads and similar sorts of infrastructure in Racine. Smart roads and driverless cars, he said, could eventually provide a service similar to what was expected from the high-speed-rail line federal officials had once proposed having built between Milwaukee and Madison, a project that Gov. Scott Walker effectively killed when he was elected in 2010.
“Our state — this is our state now — needs to be ready and prepared when information knowledge population growth come with economic growth,” Yeung said.
UW-System President Ray Cross praised Foxconn’s recent work with state universities. Cross noted that Foxconn officials have discussed using $100 million to establish a University of Wisconsin-Madison institute where researchers would work for a “smart future.”
“The alternative is a dumb future,” Cross said. “And that’s not a future I want to see.”
Construction meanwhile is well underway on both Foxconn’s factory in Mount Pleasant and an overhaul of Interstate 94 between Milwaukee and the Illinois boarder. Yeung said the company helped Wisconsin obtain a $160 million federal grant for road work related to the Foxconn project — the largest the state has ever received.
That was less, though, than Wisconsin officials originally applied for. The state had initially sought nearly $250 million for the reconstruction of I-94, enough to cover half the cost of the roughly $500 million project.
Yeung said Foxconn played a role in helping the state secure the money it eventually did get.
“We cannot take too much credit for Wisconsin winning the grant for I-94; we think we helped accelerate it,” Yeung said.
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