Safety first is music to Takata Corp.'s ears. Top executives can hear the corporate cash register ring up more and more sales of the company's occupant restraint products now that safety is one of the top priorities for today's vehicle buyer.

Things are so good that the company says sales in North America will jump from $649 million this year to $990 million by 1999, thanks to high demand for products such as dual front and side air bags and occupant-sensing devices. The Japan-based supplier opened a North American company, called Takata Inc., in Auburn Hills, MI, in 1989. North American business makes up about 40% of parent Takata Corp.'s $1.2 billion annual sales.

The question now, however, is how a potential safety-belt recall in North America involving 6 million to 10 million restraints made by Takata Corp. in Japan will affect the company's bottom line. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is conducting an investigation into possible defects that may make the belts in some 1986-'91 vehicles fly open during a crash. NHTSA has registered 177 consumer complaints, and there have been nine accidents and three lawsuits reported, but no deaths or injuries. There also have been complaints registered in Canada. All of the cars affected are made by Japanese auto companies.

Some analysts say such a recall could cost between $750 million and $1 billion, but Takata Inc. President C. Reid Rundell says that may be too steep. "It all depends on what the analysis shows," he says.

The belts allegedly fail because pieces of the release button break off and clog the latch receiver so the belt either doesn't buckle, unbuckles once hooked or only appears to be latched. Takata has changed the plastic material in the button in question, but Mr. Rundell says "we haven't seen any evidence of false latching (based on information from the automakers)." NHTSA is continuing its investigation.

Meantime, Takata moves forward with its aggressive business plan that includes continued growth in Asia/Pacific, a hike in North America and a dramatic increase in Europe. That segment currently accounts for about 10% of annual sales.

The ultimate goal is to be a full-service supplier to the auto industry, says Mr. Rundell. "We want companies to come to us and demand a complete restraint system," he says. That's already done often in Japan and is getting closer in North America. Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. now are asking for global quotes, he says. Takata's bids, like others, will include future technologies.

Here's what's coming in air bags. In the '96 model year look for non-azide air-bag inflators -- Takata's is called Envirosure. Within the next two to three years, occupant-sensing devices will be added to better detect - and help avoid -- side and rear impacts. Another device will sense the size and shape of those in the passenger seat and adapt air-bag inflation to suit them, or stop a bag from going off when an infant seat is in that position.

After the turn of the century, look for exterior and anticipative air bags as well as some that erupt from the bumper. The latter will need radar technology, however.

As for seat belts, expect more interaction with the seat itself so energy can be more easily managed. "Seat belts are to prevent injury," says Al R. Bernat, group vice president-engineering. "Their major use is to stop people from hitting things - even with air bags - but they must be more compliant. We must find new ways of absorbing energy."

That becomes more of an issue as the U.S. population ages, because older bones are more brittle. "We can't stop the bruising, but we have to help stop the breaking," says Mr. Bernat.

There also will be more protection for rear-seat occupants and single-point rather than multi-point sensors.

The automakers also will change their purchasing demands. Suppliers will be able to sell the same parts to different OEMS as long as they are non-differentiating components. "It saves time and money if they're shelf-ready," says Mr. Rundell. To emphasize the point, Takata exhibited modular retractors at SAE this year that can be refined for each OEM using add-on parts.