SAE International must do some deep soul searching to determine whether the world still needs its annual trade show in Detroit.
The organization deserves credit for improving the format of the exhibition that was part of its world congress this month in Detroit. The changes followed years of declining attendance, and declining attendance diminished participation by upper-tier suppliers. Attendance increased about 4 percent this year, reversing the declines of 10 percent or more that the annual gathering of engineers and executives had sustained the past two years.
But one primary component still was missing this year: the Tier 1 suppliers whose exodus in 2000 and 2001 altered the nature of the event. That raises a more fundamental question: In a cutthroat, competitive environment, does the industry need a serious trade show where suppliers show off their technology?
The answer is maybe not.
Some Tier 1 suppliers say they want to come back to the SAE show. But they can't spend more than $1 million on a display booth, nor do they want to be crowded in with development agencies and sellers of parts cleaners and testing equipment.
So if the trade show format is to survive and become relevant again, SAE must make significant changes.
Suppliers crave a venue where they can show off current technology in a public setting combined with some private space to display future technology to selected customers.
The biggest suppliers already rely on presentations at automakers' offices to tout their latest developments. But the automakers' time is precious, and a supplier might get in the door only once every two or three years.
Suppliers and automakers like the biennial trade show that accompanies the Frankfurt motor show. It provides the right mix of technology exposure to OEM execs and customers while providing privacy from competitors.
If SAE wants to be a relevant trade show, it ought to consider providing a Frankfurt-like environment. Since the Frankfurt show is held in September in odd-numbered years, SAE could hold a biennial supplier trade show in the fall in even-numbered years. Detroit would be the perfect location.
The intellectual forum that is part of the current congress - the presentation of technical papers and panel discussions - is too important to lose. But it doesn't have to be coupled to a trade show.
Times have changed, and it's not SAE's fault. But the leaders of the group must reassess its purpose.