DETROIT – Many in the auto industry say OEMs wait too long to invite parts producers to join a new vehicle program, and that suppliers could add significantly more value if only they could be involved earlier.

But how early should suppliers hop onboard?

Interiors specialist Johnson Controls Inc. generally joins General Motors Corp. vehicle programs at approximately week 120 – more than two years after design freeze, says Jeff Williams, group vice president and general manager for JCI’s North American automotive unit.

“I think there is an opportunity for us to be involved even earlier,” Williams says at last week’s 2007 Ward’s Auto Interiors Show.

“We’re involved in about week 120,” he says. “If we pulled that ahead ever so slightly, I think we could – before the vehicle architecture is defined – afford some additional opportunities in technologies with GM,” he says in a special panel session focusing on GM’s purchasing strategy for vehicle interiors.

Joining Williams on the panel was a GM Global Engineering representative who says there is a “natural progression” to designing a vehicle, and it makes no sense to bring suppliers to a vehicle program before they are needed.

“To have the supplier involved too early is wasteful, quite frankly,” says Jeffrey Boyer, executive director-GM North America Interior Engineering.

“The supplier is spending resources – time and money – and if we’re not at the stage in vehicle development where we’re ready to have that discussion, there’s no sense having them on board waiting,” Boyer says.

However, he doesn’t rule out earlier supplier involvement in future GM interior programs and says it occasionally is very useful, especially “when an issue needs to be resolved and when we have a particular milestone in product development and we need to move forward. We’ve got to be in a position to make sure the right people are there.”

Boyer says GM’s new midsize cross/utility vehicles (Saturn Outlook, GMC Acadia and Buick Enclave) demonstrate a willingness at Detroit’s No.1 auto maker to consult suppliers earlier in vehicle development when it makes sense.

JCI served as interior integrator for the new CUVs and supplies the seats, overhead systems, instrument clusters and electronics, while integrating interior trim components from other suppliers.

“We had a much earlier dialogue with our seating supplier JCI,” Boyer says.

Williams agrees the CUV program “has been very successful for both companies in terms of how that vehicle launched and its relative appeal in the marketplace.”

Still, Williams says, “there’s always room for improvement.”

Boyer says GM is defining its vehicle interiors earlier than ever before, at the time the auto maker drafts a “document of strategic intent.” At that point, GM is holding supplier workshops as part of the development process.

“We have the suppliers come in and offer their insights, their suggestions, perhaps on manufacturing, on quality, on enhancements to the design, all guided by our design process,” Boyer says, adding that costly late engineering changes also are being reduced.

“It’s a lot more open than it used to be – we welcome that,” Boyer says. “What comes out of that then is our statement of requirements (SOR), which roll out to the various areas of the program.”

Earlier supplier involvement, Boyer says, “clarifies a lot of the questions that used to pop up in the so-called SOR process that would cause suppliers to perhaps assume things that weren’t necessarily in line with the design direction. It would put us both in an awkward situation and perhaps cause some confusion.”

Improving communication with interior suppliers is critical to a successful launch, says another panelist, Kim Brycz, executive director-interiors at GM Global Purchasing.

A tool for opening in-depth dialogue with suppliers of all components is GM’s Tech World, generally held each year in the world’s key automotive markets.

JCI participated in the recent Tech World at GM’s Warren, MI, Tech Center in May and presented the auto maker with 33 technologies, mostly for electrical and interior applications.

“Of those 33, between four and six are being reviewed by our engineering organization for implementation,” Brycz says.

Lear Corp., GM’s other top supplier of interiors, will participate in Tech World in October, Brycz says, “so hopefully there will be more opportunities to continue to improve what we are doing in interiors.”

Lear’s Ray Scott, senior vice president and president of the supplier’s North American seating unit, says GM has been his customer for 18 years, and the auto maker is making great progress aligning its purchasing and engineering priorities.

Too often in the past, Scott says, GM’s purchasing and engineering arms worked at cross- purposes, causing needless frustration and choking effective product development.

“Now we have meetings that are specific with Jeff (Boyer), with Kim (Brycz) and their teams, and the priorities are aligned,” Scott says. “So it’s a single voice really driving the result, and I think that’s really helped us as a supplier as we move through some challenging times that we have.”

GM’s organization is truly global, he says. “It’s not just here in North America,” Scott says. “If we have an issue in South America, in China, in Europe, we bring those issues to Kim, and she addresses those issues for us.”

GM is much clearer in its demands of suppliers, Scott says. “If you don’t understand the priorities, you haven’t been paying attention, you haven’t been involved,” he says. “I’ve seen continuous improvement over the last three to five years.”

Bo Andersson, group vice president-Global Purchasing and Supply Chain, is eager to speak publicly to suppliers about GM’s purchasing strategy.

It was Andersson who suggested the Auto Interiors Show panel consisting of himself and others from GM, as well as two of its key suppliers. In a somewhat unusual format, JCI and Lear agreed to participate, at Andersson’s urging.

“Obviously this is not that easy,” Scott says to a crowd of about 200 auto interior executives, designers and engineers. “But I think this audience would appreciate this. We are not supposed to sugarcoat anything. We are here to talk about relationships.”

The moderator of the session was John Henke, president of Planning Perspectives Inc. and a professor of marketing at Oakland University.

A recent Planning Perspectives study of 308 auto suppliers finds GM on the path to more productive relationships with its suppliers. For years, the study’s Working Relations Index has ranked GM dead last because of its adversarial approach to parts producers.

This year, however, GM’s ratings are high enough to bump Ford Motor Co. into the supplier-relations celler.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com