Martin Schueble, BMW's North American vice president of procurement, says some of his suppliers cut too deeply during the recession. Now that a recovery is stirring, Schueble says, they can't meet demand.
"It's tragic. They survived the crisis, and now that food is available, they can't manage it," he says. "But it's only a very, very few companies that are struggling."
Schueble adds that access to financing is also a problem.
"It is more severe in the U.S. than in Europe," he says. "These suppliers know what they have to do, but they can't do it because they can't get the money."
That scenario worries many in the industry as they contemplate increased consumer demand in 2011. U.S. sales forecasts for 2011 hover around 12.7 million vehicles, up from a likely 11.7 million finish this year. Some analysts predict sales of more than 13 million.
But if suppliers -- who are leaner than they ever thought they could be -- struggle to rebuild capacity, that could chill the sales recovery.
That problem could play out in showrooms if carmakers can't meet consumer demand. Carlos Tavares, chairman of Nissan Americas, got a taste of the problem this year.
Buoyed by strong sales of pickups and SUVs, Nissan boosted production of body-on-frame vehicles in Smyrna, Tenn., and Canton, Miss. Then a European supplier of generic semiconductors simply ran out of capacity. The supply line stopped.
Now, Tavares wants to step up production for 2011.
"We have teams working to identify the bottlenecks and make sure we avoid them," he says. "It's really a problem of making sure that our partners believe our forecasts."