DETROIT-As production vehicles go, the new Plymouth Prowler is about as far out as anything to come from Motown in a while. But in putting together the aluminum-body hot rod, Chrysler Corp. also pushed the boundaries of supplier/original equipment manufacturer relations. When the Prowler was introduced at the 1996 North American International Auto Show in Detroit last month, the automaker gave much of the credit for the development effort to its suppliers. Chrysler refers to its supply chain management system as the Extended Enterprise, a cooperative effort that involves independent parts makers from the very outset of the de-sign stage.
This ``radically different'' approach to supplier-OEM relations, according to Tom Stallkamp, vice president of procurement and supply and general manager of minivan operations, extends ``down to the guy who digs thebauxite out of the earth.''
While much of the attention at the auto show was focused on the Prowler's intensive use of aluminum, the interior compartment also was highlighted as a successful product of the Extended Enter-prise. The car is expected to go on sale in early 1997, priced in the mid-$30,000 range.
Megatech Engineering Inc., a unit of Warren, Mich.-based Beck-er Group Inc., produced door trim panels and the console for the Prowler. More significantly, Beck-er also acted as program manager for the interior, acting as a kind of orchestra leader for a group of competing suppliers who had to learn how to play the same kind of music.
``That was really the biggest test, getting them all to work together,'' said Patrick G. Kirby, Megatech president and an executive vice president at Becker.
Megatech established a special design and development office in Rochester Hills, Mich., where Chrysler personnel and other suppliers worked side by side to develop the Prowler.
To speed de-velopment, Chrysler wanted to use as many carryover parts from existing vehicles as possible. But the automaker also asked its suppliers to use the car as a testbed for new manufacturing processes and materials.
Becker, for example, produced full door trim panels with a new glass-reinforced urethane process that uses a padded vinyl skin with urethane injected behind it. The Extended Enterprise allowed Becker to develop the part as Chrysler watched.
``Whenever you can work closer with the customer and share ideas, you're building a better relationship,'' said Charles E. Becker, chief executive officer at Becker Group.
For Chrysler, which buys at least 70 percent of its parts and components from outside sources, good supplier relations means it gets the latest technology and creative solutions to design problems. Stallkamp refers to this as a ``relationship by choice'' rather than one that is based - as too often happens in Detroit - on fear and contempt and the lowest bid.
Out of necessity, Chrysler has sought long-term relationships with key suppliers rather than focusing on the traditional approach of asking for ever-lower prices.
``After years of being browbeaten, whipped and otherwise maligned by Detroit automakers, you can imagine that our suppliers were surprised by our change in attitude,'' Stallkamp said at the auto show. ``They were shocked.''
On the Prowler, which will be built in Detroit at an annual rate of about 3,000 units, Chrysler and its suppliers point to the development of the car's instrument panel as an example of how this cooperative effort can produce good results. United Techno-logies Automotive Inc. of Dear-born, Mich., manufactures the component.
Because of the Prowler's narrow shape, the instrument panel was particularly difficult ``especially for the packaging challenges,'' said James W. Finck, Chrysler's manager for Prowler interior and electrical systems.
In a space smaller than that available for the Neon subcompact, engineers had to design an instrument panel with all the electronic and climate-control features necessary for the Prowler. Finck said the development team accomplished its goals successfully in ``significantly less space'' than usual.
What's more, the group, after looking at various plastic materials, developed an innovative magnesium support beam for the Prowler instrument panel that is 12 pounds lighter than a comparable steel beam. Finck said Chrysler probably will use magnesium ``to some extent'' in future small car programs.
Even for Becker, which had sales of more than $500 million last year and employs more than 650 automotive designers and engineers, managing the instrument panel project was a coup.
``It was a major challenge to make it go,'' Kirby said.