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After getting whacked by big upheavals in the automotive supply world, the wobbly SAE World Congress, Detroit’s biggest and most important trade show, seems to be finding its legs again.

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From Detroit Free Press

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DETROIT — After getting whacked by big upheavals in the automotive supply world, the wobbly SAE World Congress, Detroit’s biggest and most important trade show, seems to be finding its legs again.

Look for a new innovation theater on the show floor at the Society of Automotive Engineers 2004 show March 8-11, plus an influx of visitors from China, India and Korea.

The SAE show, where automotive engineers have gathered in Detroit for 80 years, has suffered since 2000 from exhibitor defections by large suppliers and from a slump in attendance. After peaking at 49,600, attendance dropped to 37,333 in 2002, before a slight rebound last year to 38,649.

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Those numbers can’t be blamed on the Cobo Center convention hall, or even on that old Detroit favorite, crummy winter weather.

Rather, the SAE show was shaken by the same phenomena that have jolted so many auto industry companies — globalization and a revolution in the automotive supply chain, which has altered the way big auto companies and their suppliers interact.

Rethinking Their Approach

Think about the changes that have transformed Michigan’s automotive landscape:

Falling market share of Detroit’s traditional Big Three automakers — General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler AG ‘s Chrysler Group — from 74 percent in 1993 to 60 percent a decade later.

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The spin-off of the Delphi and Visteon component groups by GM and Ford, respectively, and the farming out of major design and systems work to other large Tier One suppliers.

Exodus of auto assembly jobs from Michigan to Southern states, and of component jobs to Mexico and other low-wage nations.

The location of research and technical centers in Michigan by Nissan, Toyota, Hyundai and many Asian and European suppliers.

These changes forced SAE’s leaders to rethink their approach to the World Congress.

Adding Foreign Leaders

Instead of the past practice of relying on GM, Ford and Chrysler to host the show on a rotating basis, SAE is adding foreign auto industry leaders to the mix. Bernhard Goschel of BMW AG will chair the show in 2006; a Toyota executive will chair it in 2007.

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About 20 percent of SAE attendees come from foreign nations, and that number is growing, says Dave Amati, director of automotive business for SAE International. For the first time this year, the SAE exhibit hall will have a pavilion with 16 companies from India, and there will be 50 Indian companies in 2005. There will be 56 Korean companies at this year’s show, and more than 300 people from China have requested visas to attend, Amati says.

In addition to a 400-seat technology theater added last year for executive speeches, SAE will hold sessions in a new 200-seat forum on the main show floor this year.

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And if the top suppliers still aren’t putting up major exhibits — and most are not — SAE has noodled creative ways to keep them engaged in the show. Dana Corp., for example, is sponsoring the new Technical Innovation Forum. SAE organizers don’t expect an immediate rebound to the 2000 attendance record; they’d be happy with 40,000.

And in 2005, who knows? The World Congress will be held April 11-15, a change from its longtime March time slot. They say weather wasn’t the reason for the switch, but SAE officials have consulted weather guides and found that Detroit will likely be 10 or 11 degrees warmer for the 2005 show. Hey, whatever works.

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Copyright 2004 Detroit Free Press. All Rights Reserved.

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