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AIAG Show Hosted Bold, Honest Stars

At a time when Detroit’s Cobo Center is catching a lot of grief for being a tired, rundown, expensive and cramped venue, it’s nice to see one trade show there on the upswing. Auto-Tech 2004, a conference and show staged by the Automotive Industry Action Group, concluded a stimulating three-day run Wednesday that was a huge improvement on previous year’s events.

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by Tom Walsh
Detroit Free Press

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DETROIT — At a time when Detroit’s Cobo Center is catching a lot of grief for being a tired, rundown, expensive and cramped venue, it’s nice to see one trade show there on the upswing.

Auto-Tech 2004, a conference and show staged by the Automotive Industry Action Group, concluded a stimulating three-day run Wednesday that was a huge improvement on previous year’s events.

Auto-Tech drew 4,000 attendees this week, up from 3,000 a year ago. Attendance would have been even higher, had more people realized the speaker lineup was light-years better than past rosters.

No offense to Harold Krivan, a partner at J.D. Power & Associates and the keynote speaker for Auto-Tech 2003, but he doesn’t quite pack the star power of General Motors Corp. Chairman Rick Wagoner, Chrysler Group President Dieter Zetsche, Ford Motor Co. President Nick Scheele and Chief Operating Officer Jim Padilla, GM Engineering Vice President Jim Queen and top purchasing executives of GM, Ford, Chrysler, Toyota and Honda, all of whom addressed Auto-Tech this week.

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Not only were the speakers high-level, but they tackled some of the auto industry’s most sensitive topics head on: testy relations between suppliers and auto companies, protection of trade secrets, sourcing from cheap-labor nations.

Dealing with suppliers

Bo Andersson, the plain-spoken GM purchasing vice president, bluntly told the audience, composed mostly of U.S. supplier employees, that American suppliers seem to have a “huge number of salespeople” compared to Japanese and Korean suppliers that put more emphasis on quality and cost issues.

“I have to go back to the office now and fire half my sales staff,” cracked a woman at the table next to mine, after Andersson’s presentation.

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To Andersson’s and Queen’s credit, they acknowledged that there is consternation at GM over the poor ratings that the automaker received for its supplier relationships in a recent survey by Planned Perspectives, of Birmingham. “When you’re rated dead last, that raises some antennas,” Queen said.

The GM executives said they are seeking more collaborative relations and made a point of stressing that the company would not reveal suppliers’ proprietary technology to competitors. A GM employee was dismissed in the last month, Queen and Andersson said, for violating that policy.

While purchasing bosses for GM, Ford and Chrysler all stressed building better relations with suppliers, they all made it clear that U.S. suppliers must compete on price and quality with the best suppliers from around the world, including such low-wage nations as China and Mexico.

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“The days of thinking in terms of local or national auto industries are long gone,” Wagoner said.

Kudos to director

Credit for upgrading the Auto-Tech event goes to Andy Cummins, the AIAG executive director and CEO hired a year ago. Cummins is the first permanent full-time director for AIAG, which has been run by a rotating executive-on-loan from a member auto company for the first 21 years of the organization’s existence.

Cummins aims to broaden AIAG’s mission beyond its traditional role in setting industry standards for labeling, bar codes and safety. AIAG is setting up an affiliate organization in China, but it’s also trying to be a catalyst for improving the efficiency of the supply chain here at home.

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“If we’re to keep manufacturing jobs in North America, and in Michigan,” Cummins says, “we have to be smart, strategic and think long-range, versus just thinking, ‘How do I meet my numbers tomorrow?’ ”

Copyright 2004 Detroit Free Press. All Rights Reserved.

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