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Analysis of SAE Expo's changes and future

What did you think of this year’s Society of Automotive Engineers’ Congress and Exposition? That question has been posed to me many times since the 2003 event concluded last month. Veteran attendees of the annual Congress, as I am, have witnessed dramatic changes on the Exposition side of the event. In just a few short years, the main floor has gone from being a grand showcase for the world’s Tier Ones, dominated by lavish, multistory “booths,” to a visibly downsized assembly of sub-tier vendors.

The SAE Expo’s vastly altered complexion reflects the industry’s new realities — aggressive cost reduction and suppliers’ reluctance to show their latest wares at a public venue. The Tier-One exodus that began in the late ’90s took with it the palatial displays and a lot of image overkill. It also shocked the Society into much-needed action to try to win back lost participants.

SAE wisely surveyed its membership, met extensively with automakers and suppliers, and came up with the changes evident at last month’s event. Did it work?

In some ways, yes. A major improvement was the new series of “Technology Theatres” that ran throughout each day on various topics (fuel cells, safety, diesels, 42 volt, systems engineering, global business trends, etc.). According to supplier attendees I spoke with afterwards, the Theatres were valuable in bringing together suppliers, their customers and the SAE general membership on important issues. This was one of the key “wants” identified by the SAE surveys.

More work needs to be done, however, to further improve the event. Here are four suggestions: Connect the Papers with the Expo: Despite the success of the Tech Theatres, there continues to be a glaring disconnect between what quietly goes on upstairs and in other rooms at Cobo — the presentation of SAE papers — and what’s on show on the Expo floor. The paper sessions represent the intellectual capital of the industry, much of it conceived by suppliers. Within those papers is the future of automotive transportation — better materials, increased safety, more efficient powertrains. It’s exciting stuff that should be made more visible and accessible.

Connect Automotive and Aerospace: Both disciplines have much to share — in materials, processes, electronics, testing. The SAE represents a large contingent of aero engineers. But politics within the Society tend to keep them apart — I’m told that simply getting the wonderful 1903 Wright Flyer replica approved for this year’s show was a minor battle within Warrendale. Why? Most of us in this business love everything with wings and wheels. You want floor traffic at SAE 2004? Put a Tomahawk cruise missile or F-117 mockup on display.

Connect the Supply Tiers: Frankly, Tier One suppliers with their own tech centers and direct access to OEM decision makers do not need to exhibit at Cobo Hall. What they do need, however, is improved access to and communication with their own supply chains. The sub-tiers would agree; those whom I spoke with would love to have Tier One purchasing execs on hand, rather than OEMs.

Connect the SAE with the Detroit Auto Show: If the exit of top-tier exhibitors is indeed an inescapable trend, then the Society must radically change its strategy for Congress. One solution would be to partner with the North American International Auto Show. The model for such a liaison is the Frankfurt Auto Show and its “supplier halls.” Arguably this is a more relevant platform for suppliers to present their capabilities than SAE and, if applied in America, might succeed in winning back the big guns of the supplier world. (Johnson Controls’ brilliant decision to leave SAE and instead have an official presence at the Detroit auto show, has paid big dividends in terms of direct customer interaction.) If the SAE gets serious about an auto-show partnership, it would have to find its own expo facility — Cobo Hall is already at capacity for the NAIAS. One suggestion might be the new Ford Field, an all-weather football stadium about five minutes uptown from Cobo.

The SAE clearly wants to better serve its many constituencies in the face of a rapidly changing auto industry. I’m encouraged by the basic steps taken this year, and look forward to seeing further “re-engineering” of this extremely valuable industry event in the future. How about you?

Lindsay Brooke is Senior Manager of Market Assessment, CSM WorldWide Inc.

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