Relations between automakers and suppliers keep changing -- and mostly for the better. The original system, with the lowest bidders stamping out automaker designs, is long gone.
The old confrontational approach has given way to greater cooperation. Indeed, the industry got through the spike in raw materials prices in the last decade because automakers helped some smaller suppliers buy crucial materials. And each side helped the other survive the Great Recession.
Through successive waves of consolidation, suppliers have evolved. Today's parts makers are better designers and technology developers, able to function capably in multiple global markets. And, slowly, automakers have learned to cooperate more. They do better at protecting the proprietary knowledge of their suppliers, nurturing long-term relationships and considering quality and design excellence as well as the lowest cost.
While improved, relations between auto manufacturers and suppliers will never be perfect. After all, both want to maximize their own profitability. Major automakers still have more than a thousand suppliers. Even as Ford Motor Co. expands its preferred supplier program, it is suing a supplier it alleges conspired with other parts makers to fix wire harness prices.
The industry's current challenge to develop lighter and more sustainable vehicles requires even greater cooperation. It's an expensive quest for even the deepest pockets, so the winners will likely be those that find partners to share the costs.
Automakers and suppliers have always needed one another, but never more than today.