India’s largest conglomerate in talks to join iPhone makers club

(Bloomberg) — The Tata Group is in talks with a Taiwanese supplier of Apple Inc. To set up an electronics manufacturing joint venture in India, with the aim of assembling iPhones in the South Asian country.

Discussions with Wistron Corp aim to make Tata a force in technology manufacturing, and the Indian salt-to-software group wants to draw on the Taiwanese company’s expertise in product development, supply chain and assembly, people familiar with the matter said. If the deal succeeds, it could make Tata the first Indian company to make iPhones, which are currently mainly assembled by Taiwanese manufacturing giants such as Wistron and Foxconn Technology Group in China and India.

An Indian company that makes iPhones will be a huge boost to the country’s efforts to challenge China, whose dominance in electronics manufacturing has been jeopardized by Covid lockdowns and political tensions with the United States. It could also persuade other global electronics brands to consider assembling in India to reduce their dependence on China at a time of rising geopolitical risks.

The people, who declined to be named because the talks are private, said the deal structure and details such as shares have not yet been finalized, and talks are underway. One person said the plan could involve Tata buying shares in Wistron’s India operations or the companies could build a new assembly plant. The person said they could also perform these two movements.

It was not immediately clear if Apple was aware of the talks, which come at a time when the US tech giant is looking to diversify more production away from China and deepen its supply chain in India. Apple is known to work with local companies in the regions where they establish manufacturing bases — but assembling iPhones is a complex task that requires meeting the US company’s strict deadlines and quality controls.

A representative of Westron declined to comment. Tata and Apple did not respond to requests for comment.

The new project ultimately aims to increase the number of iPhones assembled by up to five times what Wistron is currently building in India, one person said. People said the partnership would likely result in Mumbai-based Tata taking a share of Wistron’s manufacturing business other than smartphones.

Electronics and high-tech manufacturing are the main focus areas for the company, the Tata Group’s Chairman, Natarajan Chandrasekaran, with revenues of about $128 billion. Industries such as software, steel and automobiles are a large part of Tata’s business, but it has taken early steps in the smartphone supply chain by starting to manufacture iPhone chassis components in South India.

For Wistron’s Indian business, which is struggling with losses, an agreement with Tata would give it a formidable local partner with deep pockets. Tata’s scope also extends to automobiles including electric vehicles, an area in which many of the world’s tech giants are eager to expand.

Wistron began making iPhones in India in 2017, after years of efforts by Apple to add manufacturing capabilities in the country. The Taipei-based company assembles iPhones at its factory in the southern Indian state of Karnataka.

The promise of India’s strong 1.4 billion consumer market, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s financial incentives to produce the technology have prompted Apple’s other major contract manufacturers Foxconn and Pegatron Corp. to also expand in the country. However, India’s workforce and factories have not easily adopted the heavily controlled practices that Apple requires of suppliers: since iPhone assembly began in India five years ago, workers have revolted over salaries and substandard living and working conditions in two high-profile incidents.

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