It's no secret that automakers are striving to obtain advanced features from suppliers before their rivals get them.
Witness the appeal this month by Steve Kiefer, General Motors' purchasing chief, to suppliers, asking them to bring their best new tech to the automaker first. The request was direct and urgent.
During a ceremony to honor 78 suppliers for quality and innovation, Kiefer reminded them that the automaker would be placing "hundreds of billions of dollars" in new contracts within 24 months. He also asked that each attendee send him an innovative idea within 30 days.
But Kiefer was voicing out loud what has become clear to the industry: Automakers need suppliers like never before.
The auto industry faces enormous challenges over the next decade: meeting 2025 model year fuel economy standards, the entry of nontraditional manufacturers, the emergence of autonomous vehicles and consumer demand for better connectivity, security and safety.
No automaker, however large, can afford to develop everything it needs independently. And none has the vast engineering staff to accomplish all that. Automakers must get much of what they need from outside suppliers with tech savvy, and automakers are jostling to be first in line.
It's a seller's market. Suppliers with advanced-technology capability know full well that they decide which customer gets the latest features first.
One old-school rule still applies for most suppliers. Their best customers get the best ideas. And the best customers are the most profitable ones. Usually, auto manufacturers get what they pay for. But as repeated surveys rating suppliers' customers show, parts makers value other attributes as well.
Suppliers want customers that respect their intellectual property, are willing to collaborate, respect supplier knowledge and share cost-cutting savings.
Those qualities of a respectful relationship give automakers opportunities beyond the depth of their pocketbooks to get cutting-edge technology from suppliers.
Certainly, automakers must pony up for suppliers' technology. But manufacturers also can make headway by being better customers: Make sure product development teams are capable of assessing which technologies to pursue. Collaborate with suppliers early in the program. Share cost savings with supplier partners.
Perhaps most important, automakers committed to working more as partners with suppliers must make sure everybody in the purchasing department knows that some things are more important than hammering suppliers on price.
All those things help make automakers more valuable customers for suppliers.
The quickening pace of change should remind automakers and suppliers how much they need one another.