DETROIT – Like the early bird snatching a tasty meal, auto suppliers stand a better chance at winning new business if they introduce unique technology to auto makers near the beginning of new-vehicle programs.

That is the consensus of four program directors for North America's top auto makers during a panel discussion on product creation Aug. 30 at the AutoTech conference hosted here at Cobo Center by the Automotive Industry Action Group (AIAG).

Today, auto makers are welcoming suppliers to new-vehicle programs earlier than in the past, but they know there still is considerable room for improvement.

General Motors Corp., for instance, now is able to make sourcing decisions on about 40% of the components for a new vehicle within one year of the product's design freeze, says Rick Spina, GM executive director-program management.

“Not long ago, that percentage would have been zero,” Spina says.

While suppliers develop expertise in specific components, Spina says it is important for them to understand how those parts interact with others in the vehicle. Likewise, he says it is crucial for GM to maintain its engineering focus on componentry so supplier knowledge does not outstrip the auto maker's.

“We rely on suppliers for risk reduction, especially in the area of quality,” Spina says. He urges suppliers to demonstrate for GM “the best execution” of their products, so the end consumer can derive the most value from the supplier's component.

“Convince us,” he says. “Show us that by choosing you, we're not making a mistake.”

Raj Nair, Ford executive director of SUV and body-on-frame vehicles.

Ford Motor Co.'s Raj Nair says supplier technology is emerging as one of the best ways for a vehicle to stand out in the marketplace.

“It's getting harder and harder to find unique differentiators today,” says Nair, Ford executive director-SUV and body-on-frame vehicles. “That's where we look for answers from our supply base.”

Chrysler Group points to its innovative Stow 'n Go fold-in-the-floor minivan seating as a unique technology that sets apart Chrysler minivans from the competition. Magna International Inc.'s Intier Automotive Systems developed the popular feature in concert with Chrysler.

“It was clear that (product-development) time and functionality were the critical parameters of that (minivan) program,” says Roger Lundberg, director-engineering operations and the Chrysler Development System.

Occasionally, development programs stumble because a supplier may be struggling with a particular task. During Tuesday's session, panelists were asked how a supplier can get back on track after encountering such a problem.

Randy Stephens led development of Toyota's all-new Avalon sedan.

Randy Stephens, executive program director who led development of the all-new Avalon at Toyota Technical Center USA Inc., says suppliers were onsite frequently at the Ann Arbor, MI, tech center, driving the Avalon development program.

“It was very apparent if someone was struggling, because we were all in the same room,” Stephens says. One Avalon supplier, for instance, had to redesign part of the seat structure.

“It takes a few months to work (problems) through,” Stephens says. “But if everyone is working together, we all can adjust our schedules to compensate.”

Stephens' advice for suppliers: “Allow time in the schedule for quality.”

AIAG was formed in 1982 to foster supply-chain dialogue between auto makers and parts producers. The organization's goal is to reduce cost and complexity through collaboration, and the AutoTech conference frequently focuses on standardized practices across the industry, particularly in the area of quality.

When asked about the potential for further standardization across the industry, the four panelists essentially shrug.

“We're just trying to standardize across our own company,” Stephens says of Toyota, as the other panelists nod in agreement. “We have to standardize our own facilities before we can standardize industry-wide.”