U.S. SERVICE TOOL MAKERS HAPPY WITH JAPANESE

At least one group of U.S. suppliers isn't complaining about Japanese carmakers these days.

Equipment tool suppliers - the companies that make service tools and equipment used at dealerships and repair shops - boast one of the most harmonious trans-Pacific relationships in the auto industry.

While U.S. trade negotiators harangue the Japanese about America's impervious $36*billion automotive trade deficit, about one-third of which is in Japanese-made auto parts, the equipment tool suppliers say they're perfectly content.

'Delighted,' they say.

'Our industry actually has a positive balance of trade with Japan,' said Donn Proven, executive manager of the Equipment and Tool Institute, a 90-company trade association.

U.S. producers of engine components, auto electronics and air conditioners may complain that they can't sell enough parts to Japan's automakers. Big-component makers charge that they can't get into the Japanese home market because of long-standing ties between automakers and suppliers there. And U.S. automotive producers say it's difficult to get in on the ground floor of Japanese vehicle development overseas, where the carmakers expect suppliers to design their parts into the product.

But none of that seems to apply to the tool and equipment manufacturers, which make such items as brake-repair equipment, engine-testing systems and collision-repair tools. The big reason: U.S. firms still dominate the global tool and equipment market.

'We develop 80 percent of the service tools in the world,' Proven estimated. 'We're an exporting association. Fortunately, unlike other segments of the U.S. auto industry, we're dominant.'

Another reason for the rosy disposition: In the equipment business, companies don't have to grapple for access to projects that are scheduled for four or six years down the road. They just need the details on this year's model.

Japanese carmakers have been meeting with the U.S. firms since 1988, turning over details of technical data and vehicle specifications as requested. This month in Torrance, Calif., the Japanese carmakers met in the United States with the U.S. companies for the first time.

During that meeting, Japanese auto industry officials discussed future product plans and vehicle trends in Japan.

The U.S. firms didn't need to hear that.

'The real meat and potatoes of these meetings is getting information on 1995-model cars,' Proven said.

Kenji Matsuoka, chairman of the equipment and tool group of the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association, which co-hosts the exchange, told the U.S. industry that its expectations shouldn't be too high for 1995. Sales are still sluggish in Japan, he said.

The news wasn't too daunting.

Said Proven, 'We see some expansion opportunity in Asia.'

You can reach Lindsay Chappell at lchappell@crain.com

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