If you’re reading this on the show floor at the Society of Automotive Engineers’ World Congress at Detroit’s Cobo Center, take a look around and try to remember what last year’s exposition was like.

Yes, the company names may be less recognizable, and you probably see fewer mammoth, two-story pavilions because Delphi Automotive Systems, Visteon Corp., DuPont Automotive, TRW Inc., Yazaki North America and a host of other major Tier 1 suppliers decided not to exhibit this year.

Beyond the biggies, a lot of small exhibitors have left, too. More than 200 of the 1,300 companies that exhibited last year are gone, replaced by other suppliers eager for a spot on the show floor.

Turnover is a fact of life for the SAE Congress, but usually the number of new exhibitors is around 120, says David Amati, SAE’s director of professional meetings and activities group. Despite the departures, he says in mid-February that some 40 companies remain on a waiting list to get in.

Finding a silver lining in the
departures of major Tier 1s, Mr. Amati says prime real estate on the show floor has been reassigned – based on seniority and SAE’s point system – to smaller suppliers that a year ago probably would have been glad just to get out of the basement.

But Mr. Amati readily admits that SAE is "working behind the scenes seriously" to reinvigorate the Congress, lest more suppliers depart next year.

"We’re working on something significantly new for the future. We’re reinventing the Congress, and it requires a new structure," Mr. Amati says. "The Congress will look very different if support from both sides (OEMs and suppliers) comes through. I feel we’re responding directly to the feedback we’re getting."

He declines to be specific until all the parties are in agreement on a course of action. He says meetings are being held "at the highest levels."

SAE has formed a task force of top-tier suppliers to discuss why so many major companies aren’t exhibiting this year. As of mid-February, none of the companies had committed to be back at the Congress next year.

The task force will devise a "formula" so suppliers can find value in participating. "It will take changing what we do right now," Mr. Amati says. Heading up the task force, which includes six top supplier executives, is 2001 SAE President Neil Schilke, general director of engineering/corporate staffs at General Motors Corp. Also involved is the Original Equipment Suppliers Assn.

The task force fits with this year’s conference theme, "Succeeding in the Alliance Game," which was selected by Arvin Mueller, group vice president of GM Powertrain and this year’s general chairperson for the Congress.

"I would say that SAE provides an opportunity to float all of the ships at a higher level," Mr. Mueller says. "We can increase the integrity of our industry and increase the performance. There are non-competitive ways to help us understand problems better."

He says the departure of so many big exhibitors is "an artifact of SAE needing to provide the right forum." Automotive engineers are a "huge audience, and we just have to figure out a better way to serve that audience."

GM is this year’s host for the Congress and will exhibit on the space Dana Corp. is giving up. BMW AG’s presence on the show floor last year marked the first time an automaker has ever exhibited. The host company changes every year, and each of the Big Three automakers has had a turn about every six years.

In demonstrating its commitment to the Congress, GM has taken the unusual step of encouraging all of its engineers in Southeast Michigan to attend at least a few of the 1,200 technical sessions, as well as to walk the show floor. The strategy could pay off big, as many of GM’s 16,000 North American engineers are in Southeast Michigan.

It’s hard to believe, but Mr. Amati says this is the first time an OEM has openly prodded its engineers to attend the world’s largest gathering of automotive techies.

Suppliers have complained for years that OEM engineers were not attending the show like they used to. Traditionally, one of the biggest reasons to be at the Congress was to display (and potentially sell) innovative technology for OEM customers.

But today, the top suppliers have greater access to OEM customers with private showings during the year, and many say they don’t need SAE for that purpose.

The waning attendance of OEM engineers was core to Yazaki North America’s decision to yank its two-story pavilion from this year’s Congress.

"You ask Jac Nasser and Carlos Mazzorin, and, sure, they’ll say they support SAE," says Jeffrey Jones, assistant marketing director at Yazaki. "And then you ask, ‘Do you realize that your middle managers are telling your engineers that they don’t have time to go?’ And they say, ‘No, that doesn’t happen.’ But it does."

Mr. Jones says he hopes Yazaki can return next year – if improvements are made and if the industry outlook brightens.

The expense of being at SAE is core for many. It can cost more than $1 million for top suppliers to be at SAE, and the people most often visiting the booths are competitors or students looking for jobs.

In response, new this year on the show floor is a pavilion called "Area 51," which consists of four private rooms where suppliers can show customers proprietary new technology and discuss it in detail, away from prying eyes.

Mr. Mueller says Area 51 should be very successful because the suppliers he has spoken with say the lack of privacy on the show floor figured heavily in their decision not to exhibit. "All the ones I talked to decided that was the reason," Mr. Mueller says.

Also new this year: Non-member automaker engineers can walk the show floor for free (compared to $40 for non-member supplier engineers), and SAE has substantially cut the registration fee for non-member OEM engineers from $600 last year for the entire week-long conference to $200 this year.

Mr. Mueller hopes to see this year’s Congress heavily attended. "Certainly from a North American OE and supplier standpoint," he says, "it’s the center of the universe." o

For more coverage of SAE 2001, click here.