An ice storm put a chill on the first day's activities, but exhibitors at this year's SAE conference were hotter than they'd been in a long time.

After years of talking the talk, many companies had something to show for their efforts. Finally, they could demonstrate to the outside world they are walking the walk. There were innovations such as revolutionary plastic radiator concepts, and dramatic new alliances between usually bitter business rivals such as Dow Chemical Co. and DuPont. And after many years of talking about modular component systems, true commercialized products seemed to be everywhere.

Robert D. Albert, vice-president of Dow's Automotive Materials and Services Group, says that as the supplier community condenses there will be two types of suppliers - those that provide solutions and those that sell low-cost materials or pieces.

"We've decided to be a solutions supplier," he says. "Being a provider of solutions requires more than a force-fit of your products into a customer's problem. It is paradoxical for an automotive supplier to speak in terms of solutions, then leapfrog directly into a dialogue about products, yet that is what's happening far too often. If you're in the solution business, you better be prepared to offer the best solution available, not just the ones that best utilize your products."

Mr. Albert also says globalization is more than just having plants in different locations around the world. "It's the most difficult thing we've done in a long time," he says. "We have to service people like Ford Motor Co. seamlessly anywhere in the world. The guys who figure it out will be the big winners."

One of the most interesting products introduced incorporates all these trends - innovation, unique business alliances and modularity - into one product: the "Super Plug" door hardware module.

Jointly developed by GE Plastics and General Motors Corp.'s Delphi Interior Lighting Systems group over five years, the Super Plug combines 61 separate interior door parts into one easily installed module that provides all the goodies OEMS are looking for: less system cost, mass and vehicle assembly time.

What's more, its one-piece construction is expected to substantially reduce problems with squeaks and rattles, operating noise and overall warranty problems. Read on for other show highlights.