Automakers are still demanding improved quality and efficiency and further price cuts. Suppliers are still grumbling about dwindling profit margins, General Motors Corp.'s supplier relations and Ford Motor Co.'s Ford 2000 program. Despite these rough edges, the evolving OEM-vendor relationship has changed for the better, and it's resulting in better vehicles.

The 1996 model year is rife with examples of how concepts like platform teams, automaker-supplier partnerships and supplier-supplier cooperation are making vehicles lighter, better-performing and more visually appealing, more comfortable and more cost-efficient to produce.

There are many examples of supplier involvement on Ford's Taurus/Sable platform, the highest profile of the few brandnew models bowing this year. Ford took the new vehicles on a tour of supplier facilities last summer to express appreciation for having a "hand" in the redesigned platform. In keeping with that theme, a representative from each supplier made paint hand prints on a Taurus.

Of course there are more opportunities for suppliers to impact redesigns, so we see Lear Seating Corp. working with Ford to design Taurus' unique front seat with the center section that can be a seat or a flip-up center console. Other Taurus/Sable features in which suppliers played a major role include UT Automotive's scaled-down version of Continental's multiplexed wiring system, Robert Bosch Corp.'s antilock braking system, Freudenberg Nonwoven's cabin air filter and a structural adhesive for the aluminum decklid by 3M Corp.

Other supplier innovations seen on 1996 model year vehicles include a Johnson Controls Inc. integrated structural seat on the Chrysler Sebring convertible, a new Webasto sunroof design for GM's N and J platforms and modular side windows for Chrysler Corp.'s new minivans using a proprietary Donnelly Corp. technology called single-sided encapsulation.

This is just the beginning. As auto-makers increasingly pass engineering responsibility to suppliers, more vendor-driven innovations will make their way onto vehicles in 1997 and beyond.

In the following articles, WAW details some of the major supplier contributions to the 1996 models.