Brazil is beginning to look like a laboratory for the world's auto industry. Recently, General Motors launched production at its Blue Macaw assembly plant in Gravatai (see Page 28). Sixteen suppliers located next to the plant deliver component modules to GM. One supplier, Lear Corp., has stationed workers inside the plant to assemble door panels.
Other automakers have gone even further. In Resende, Volkswagen relies on eight suppliers to assemble commercial trucks. Not one assembly line worker is employed directly by VW. Where will it stop? Is there any job that automakers will not allow suppliers to handle?
Automotive executives sometimes insist that they will never outsource powertrains. But automakers already buy engines from each other, so the powertrain is not sacrosanct. And when fuel cells and hybrid powertrains become more practical, the high cost of r&d will force more automakers to share engines.
In fact, the pressure to cut manufacturing costs is so great that automakers will try nearly anything. Sooner or later, suppliers will have a chance to design and produce virtually any component. And if such an experiment works for one automaker, rivals will quickly copy it.
If an automaker does not actually have to make automobiles, what exactly is it?The obvious answer is that it still designs the car or truck. Of course, one could hire Guigiaro or Pininfarina to handle such details. Perhaps an automaker might be nothing more than the badge on a car's grille. As Gertrude Stein once said, 'There is no there there.'
You can e-mail David Sedgwick at [email protected]