You probably haven’t heard of Foxtron, but if you follow electric vehicles (EVs), you will soon. This is Foxconn’s EV startup, created in partnership with Yulon Group (YLM), a Taiwanese car manufacturer of NISSAN designs. In 2021, the company introduced three EV models in Taiwan: a sedan Model E (sold by Yulon), a sports utility vehicle (SUV) Model C, and a passenger-transit bus Model T. In 2022, Foxtron introduced a new all-terrain utility pickup Model V and a lower-cost Model B sedan (Figure 1).
Though the company will begin producing these vehicles in Taiwan, the company has plans to roll out production on a global scale. Its bigger plan is to pivot into a hyper-flexible company that focuses on working behind the scenes to become the No. 1 EV manufacturer, even if nobody knows who built the vehicle they’re driving.
The Big Picture
This is organized by a Foxconn consortium called Mobility in Harmony (MIH). The MIH Consortium runs the Open EV Alliance, a new conglomerate built on the principles that Foxconn pioneered in building consumer products like PCs and smartphones. MIH hopes to foster innovation and collaboration to lower entry barriers for alliance partners. As Foxconn passed $216 billion in revenue, there is a lot of confidence that this success story can be duplicated in EVs.
I am writing about this topic from a unique point of view, as I was a chief technology officer in one of Foxconn’s business units for several years—one of the few non-Chinese employed by Foxconn. I was also one of the few Westerners to meet Terry Gou in Taiwan in 1983 when he was just starting out in the electronics component business. At the time, I was managing Hewlett-Packard’s Application Center in Taiwan. Gou eventually became chairman and CEO of Foxconn.
I didn’t hear a lot about Hon Hai, the company that would become Foxconn, until 2008, when I got a phone call from my old HP boss at HP-Taiwan, who had just become the executive vice president of Hon Hai and needed some help in China. From then on, I would learn a lot about Foxconn and Terry Gou.
How Did Foxconn Start?
Foxconn started in the 1970s by making plastic items for TVs. In the ‘80s, when the IBM PC started growing, Foxconn pivoted to making connectors and cables for PCs. This turned out to be a smart move; as the volume grew, so did the gross margin—to over 36%.
As it diversified its manufacturing portfolio, Foxconn became even nimbler and more adept in positioning itself as a leader in whatever it does. Thus, in 2020 when the company entered the EV market, its worldwide sales quickly jumped to $240 billion.
Unlike traditional car builders, Foxconn believes that simple EVs can be built like PCs, as modular elements; to explore that possibility, the company formed the MIH Consortium, which now has over 2,376 members in 64 countries. Through the MIH Consortium, Foxconn will supply startup EV companies with referenced EV designs and all the necessary components to make a new EV (battery, motors, electronics, displays, wiring, software, IC chips, and the body) with full assembly available as an additional service. A real “PC on wheels,” all at high margins for Foxconn.
Foxconn as an ODM
From my vantage point, Foxconn doesn’t hesitate to spend money. It is “vertically oriented” and will develop or build as many component parts for electronics products as it can, including video displays, power supplies, plastic molding machines and cast metal parts, PCBs, flex, connectors, RF/networking, earphones, cameras, etc. Foxconn is the owner of the two largest PCB/flex fabricators in the world: Zhen Ding Technology (valued at over $5 billion) and FIH Mobile Limited (100% captive but over $4 billion in sales)3-4. Expect these two to dominate electronics component production in their EVs, with EV sales projected to total over 40 million vehicles by 2030. Now, that’s a lot of electronics (Figure 2).
Foxconn designs many of the smartphones that other OEMs are marketing in China. They also now build a multitude of robots, many of which are used in their own assembly. This lineup will undoubtably be expanded to include the larger robots used for chassis assembly, painting, and welding. Foxconn has purchased HP’s inkjet module business and even assembles their inkjet printers. Due to automotive demands, Foxconn has purchased a semiconductor fabricator and partnered with NVIDIA for CPU chips, and the company is building a new wafer fab in Malaysia.
In 2001, Intel chose Foxconn to manufacture its Intel-branded motherboards and CPU modules. Next came the smartphone revolution, and it rode that wave with Apple from the very beginning by building iPhones. By keeping its exponential growth under the radar, Foxconn found its way into everyone’s household without becoming a household name.
If Foxconn wanted to finally step out behind from the curtain of obscurity, it had two options: buy consumer brands or move into entirely new industries. It chose to do both. But the real question is: Can all this verticalization for consumer electronics be extended to the EV business?
Can You Build EVs like PCs?
The PC market exploded because Intel essentially gave away its base PC design provided you purchased an Intel CPU; AMD has since followed suit. Now, just a few engineers can put together a working PC. At the time, Microsoft also made Windows software available at a very low price. Compare this situation to the current landscape with EVs. An EV is more than just a motor and a battery; there are many different electronics systems at play, including battery and charging systems, motor control, lighting, steering, braking, air conditioning, wipers, anti-collision and safety systems, entertainment, interior systems, body frame systems, and soon, autonomous 5G communications.
Other factors to consider in putting a car on the road:
- Government, state, and local traffic regulations
- Insurance companies and the risks inherent in operating on public roads
- Safety standards and liability
- Lengthy warranties
- Maintenance and support for up to 15 years or more per model
- The need for geographic assembly
- Foxconn’s reliance on Taiwanese management in foreign countries
To be successful, EV companies will need to differentiate their models to attract customers, requiring even single-EV companies to initiate periodic model changes and updates.
It took 30 years for Taiwan OEMs/ODMs (TSMC, Hon Hai, PCB fabricators) to build the infrastructure necessary to launch this initiative, and all while no one was watching. The Big Three automotive infrastructures (U.S., Germany, and Japan) have been building for 120 years and already have a multitude of component and parts suppliers, as well as the universities needed to educate EV creators. China and Taiwan, in contrast, are just getting started—but Foxconn has already made great strides toward making China and Taiwan major players on the EV stage.
Foxconn plans to ship 500,000 to 750,000 EVs by 2025, mostly to Asian customers; that’s up to $34 billion or $45,000 per vehicle. It plans to take the modular approach used for electronics and robotics to assemble the frame and put all the modules into these EVs.
MIH EV Design LLC, Foxconn’s joint venture with Lordstown (Ohio) Motor Corp. (LMC) will use the Mobility in Harmony (MIH) Open EV Platform to co-design and develop EV programs for the global commercial vehicle market by leveraging the services seen in Figure 3. Foxconn invested $230 million, with $100 million to start up, and gave LMC a $45 million loan “to support its initial capital commitment,” according to an LMC announcement8. Foxconn owns 55% of the new company and LMC owns 45%9.
Foxconn recently acquired a major LMC factory where it will help Fisker Inc. begin producing its PEAR model EV in 2024. An estimated 250,000 PEAR units are slated to be produced per year. Through the partnership, LMC is on schedule to begin producing an all-electric pickup truck, the Endurance, later this year. This will undoubtably be the training plant for automotive engineers as Foxconn and China do not currently train automotive engineers like the U.S., Japan, and Germany.
Foxconn has just announced a plan to spend $201.9 million to build a battery cell R&D and trial mass production center at the Kaohsiung Hofa Industrial Park in Taiwan, with a goal to begin mass-producing lithium iron phosphate batteries in the first quarter of 2024.
But Tesla, with its multiple new plants and battery operations, has a long head start on the competition. Compare Tesla’s website to MIH’s—Tesla is already taking orders. Current internal combustion engine (ICE) manufacturers have also started working on EVs; 18 companies have introduced EVs to the market. GM has four models on the road, in addition to a very impressive EV architecture that the company has termed the ULTIUM program. GM’s offerings include five power trains for dual-wheel power with five additional power modules for single-wheel drive and dozens of battery configurations (Figures 4 and 6). They have also secured the cooperation of LG Energy Systems to build three new GM battery plants in North America.
What’s Happening Now
There are currently 57 EV startups, with most in Asia, and specifically 20 in China; several companies in China have produced ICE vehicles for many years. I believe many of these startups will flock to Foxconn to get access to its EV Reference Design and to start mastering the many technologies necessary to build a functioning EV. Established ICEs with their own manufacturing, on the other hand, are likely to stay away due to the fear of having to share their hard knowledge with all the newcomers (Figure 5). But issues of product design security and IP will be a major challenge for MIH, as new products must be introduced almost every year to keep the public interested in their product.
Only time will tell if Foxconn can deliver on its plans. Its success in the PC and smartphone business was aided by the small size of these electronics and the large effort by North America and the EU to outsource electronics manufacturing. Automotive and transportation are now national priorities for these regions, so duplicating the consumer electronics growth may be a tough road to follow.
Times have changed in the last 30 years; innovation is rampant. Already, many are trying organic adhesives to replace spot welding, while newer plastics have strength greater than aluminum with lower weight. Fuel cell technology for large trucks may be miniaturized for autos. The industry is also focusing on small, super-efficient hydrogen-powered electric generators as a means to produce the electricity these EVs need without the weight and cost of lithium batteries. As this industry continues to grow, I’m sure we’ll see a flurry of new ideas take shape in the next few years. Whether Foxconn succeeds in dominating that process remains to be seen.
- “About Foxtron,” FoxtronEV.com, 2023.
- “Smart Open Electric Vehicle Platform,” HonHai.com, 2023.
- “Zhen Ding Technology Holding Limited,” Yahoo! Finance profile, 2023.
- “FIH Mobile Limited,” LinkedIn.com profile page, 2023.
- “Electric Vehicle Outlook 2022,” by BloombergNEF, bnef.turtl.co, 2022.
- “Our Technical Service” section on main page, FoxtronEV.com, 2023.
- GMC CES Press Package, 2021.
- “Lordstown Motors and Foxconn Close Asset Purchase Agreement and Enter into JV Agreement for MIH Based EV Development,” LordstownMotors.com, May 11, 2022.
- “Foxconn working with Fisker & Lordstown Motors to produce 2 EVs at Ohio factory,” by Lurah Lowery, RDN, RepairerDrivenNews.com, May 17, 2022.
- “Embattled EV startup Lordstown touts ‘real employees at a real plant’ as it seeks capital infusion,” by Michael Wayland, CNBC, CNBC.com, Jun. 23, 2021.
- “Top 10 Electric Car Startups,” EnergyStartups.org, Jan. 5, 2023.
Happy Holden has worked in printed circuit technology since 1970 with Hewlett-Packard, NanYa Westwood, Merix, Foxconn, and Gentex. He is currently a contributing technical editor with I-Connect007, and the author of Automation and Advanced Procedures in PCB Fabrication, and 24 Essential Skills for Engineers.
This column originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of PCB007 Magazine.