The auto sales boom of the last half of the 1990s, coupled with automakers vesting top suppliers with more design and engineering responsibility, fueled the growth of the exposition. By 2000 it had reached auto show-like proportions with $1 million, multistory displays.
But the success of a packed show floor and a waiting list of companies that wanted in blinded SAE to a significant fact: The engineering decision makers that suppliers were spending all that money to court weren't making the trek to Cobo Center in downtown Detroit. In the past five years, suppliers have discovered it's cheaper and more effective to take their wares to the automakers in private technology shows.
SAE continues to try to bring the Tier 1 suppliers back into the show by offering prefabricated display areas with the promise of privacy and lower costs. Not many suppliers seem interested. SAE also plans to run shuttle buses from automakers' offices to the show.
But SAE shouldn't spend its efforts trying to restore recent history. Here are two suggestions:
n Appeal to the Tier 1 folks to be attendees, not exhibitors, and turn the exposition into a matchmaking area for smaller suppliers. The Tier 1 people need an easy forum to scout companies for their supply chains as they create systems for the automakers. Run shuttle buses from suppliers' offices to Cobo Center.
n Shine a brighter light on the other half of the convention, the technical presentations. The auto industry is in the midst of a technological change unlike any other seen in decades. Fuel cells, advanced diesel emissions treatment and new generations of safety equipment are migrating from research labs to test tracks. The industry, and ultimately retailers and consumers, can benefit from learning about such technologies from the experts.