Evolution, not revolution" remains a much-used phrase among automotive engineers; now it's time for the giant SAE International Congress & Exposition to do some evolving as well. In recent years many of the auto industry's largest suppliers - and SAE's biggest exhibitors - such as Johnson Controls Inc., Dow Chemical Co. and Textron Automotive Inc. have pulled out of the exposition. Their booth space has quickly been gobbled up by dozens of new exhibitors, most with smaller booths. That's led to a big jump in the number of exhibitors: 1,400 in '98 compared with 856 last year.

Despite the loss of many big hitters, the exposition continues to expand, adding 50,000 sq. ft. (4,600 sq. m) in '98. Attendance also remains strong and continues to strain Detroit's hotel room and parking capacity - to the chagrin of show-goers. A total of 46,100 visited the show this year or attended related technical presentations. While not a record, SAE's attendance looks good compared with historical levels. Attendance drifted as low as 37,000 in 1991 when recession wracked Detroit's economy.

Nevertheless, if you think the show floor is getting less crowded, you may be right. Many engineers attending this year's 236 technical sessions say time limitations force them to concentrate on attending specific paper presentations rather than browsing the exposition.

Even though SAE clearly is changing, claims by some show-goers that it's turning into a showcase for mostly small Tier 2 suppliers are exaggerated. A spokeswoman says 21 of the top 25 Tier 1 suppliers exhibited at the show this year, and some of the biggest, including Robert Bosch Corp. and DuPont Automotive, remain enthusiastic supporters of the event.