Struggling IBEC looks to the future Since 1993, automotive body engineers have gathered each year to discuss topics such as math-based modeling, rapid prototyping and how to crash a car digitally.

But this year's International Body Engineering Conference and Exposition (IBEC) hit a brick wall of its own.

It was held in early October at Detroit's Cobo Center, and many of the 500 attendees and 18 exhibitors left disappointed. In 1999, IBEC hosted 1,100 attendees and more than 50 exhibitors.

Why such low attendance in a town where engineers working in the body and chassis realm are a dime a dozen?

Apparently some engineers overseas have become disenchanted that this "international" body engineering conference has been held the past three years in Detroit, says Dave Porreca, manager of the engineering meetings division at the Society of Automotive Engineers, which organized the conference. "Some won't come because it's always in the U.S.," he says.

But Mr. Porreca reports that SAE has a three-year plan to boost attendance and make the event truly international.

General Motors Corp. will host next year's event in Detroit, Renault SA will host the 2002 IBEC in France, and a Japanese automaker, possibly Toyota Motor Corp., will host the 2003 conference in Yokohama, Mr. Porreca says. DaimlerChrysler Corp. hosted IBEC this year.

SAE, along with the Engineering Society of Detroit, acquired the trade show from the Automotive Technology Group in 1997. But this past summer, the Engineering Society of Detroit handed over full control to SAE.

Automakers remain committed to IBEC as an important meeting for body engineers, Mr. Porreca says.

"The body is the first impression for car customers," he says. "It's where the customer makes a relationship with the automobile." He says body engineering employs 40% of the designers and engineers devoted to a new vehicle program.

"Nothing occurs without some interaction with the body, and it's 25% of the weight," Mr. Porreca says. "Body engineering is usually the critical path in lead time in bringing a new model to market."

And don't forget the impact of government regulations, emissions, recyclability and fuel constraints.

"The bottom line is the automakers told us this conference is critical," Mr. Porreca says.