The Detroit 3 have turned to engineering executives to run their parts purchasing operations, with Ford becoming just the latest example. It's an idea that fits the times and seems to be working.
And the approach is different from what suppliers are used to. While purchasers focus on cutting costs, engineers tend to champion high-value parts. Suppliers must satisfy both camps when dealing with the carmakers -- and it's not easy.
But elevating engineering executives appears to have brought automakers and suppliers together earlier in the vehicle-development process. It also has spawned innovative ideas, such as General Motors and Chrysler sending engineers to supplier plants this year to work out kinks that can snarl vehicle launches.
Grace Lieblein, former chief engineer for the GMC Acadia and Buick Enclave crossovers, has been the top purchasing executive at General Motors since December. At Chrysler, Scott Kunselman and his predecessor, the late Dan Knott, came up through the engineering ranks.
At Ford, Hau Thai-Tang is replacing Tony Brown as the global purchasing chief. Thai-Tang was previously Ford's head of engineering and was once the chief engineer of the 2005 Ford Mustang. And while Brown was a purchasing veteran, supply chain-savvy CEO Alan Mulally already had put Ford purchasing on an engineering-driven path.
Surveys of suppliers in the past couple of years show that relations between the Detroit 3 and their suppliers have become less contentious. We believe that an engineering mind-set in the seat of power in purchasing is a key reason.