ROCHESTER, MICH. — When it comes to being all things to all people, large automotive suppliers are a house divided.
Interior parts suppliers — among the largest molders in the auto industry — have shifted steadily from parts makers to assemblers of integrated systems.
But while companies now tout their assembly services, a panel discussion during the American Society of Body Engineers Inc.'s annual executive round table raised a dust cloud of differing approaches.
The event, held Sept. 14 in Rochester, featured some of the industry's largest interior-parts suppliers. Each discussed the importance of taking a systems approach, in which adjacent parts are enmeshed into a larger piece of vehicle, whether it be an instrument panel or an entire interior cockpit.
But the road to achieving that one-piece system had many avenues.
Tom Neumeyer, vice president of sales and marketing for Magna Interior Systems, said his company can act as a program manager for an entire interior.
His parent company, Magna International Inc. of Aurora, Ontario, recently started its Symatec division to act as an assembler, bringing together disparate parts from various suppliers.
Neumeyer was adamant that the existence of some mega-suppliers depends on their ability to adopt a whole-car concept. Those companies can save their auto-making customers money by consolidating parts and reducing labor time, he said.
``A company that can't control a mass of capabilities can't play in this league,'' Neumeyer said. ``We take a common approach on all body systems. You either control it or [Tyrannosaurus] Rex controls you.''
But Textron Automotive Co. of Troy, Mich., is more willing to cede some of that control to its smaller suppliers, said Sam Licavoli, president of Textron Automotive Trim.
The company cannot be everything to everybody, Licavoli said. Instead, Textron concentrates on such areas as interior trim and instrument panels, leaving other parts of the interior to its litany of suppliers.
``We don't want to be so vertically integrated that we have to work at warp speed,'' Licavoli said. ``We risk taking our eye off the ball. We'd rather focus on our core competencies.''
Textron has the ability to integrate different parts but recognizes the danger of attempting to do too much, Licavoli said.
The company is content to stick to those parts where the company has its greatest expertise, he said.
That narrower approach also fits the rapid shift taking place within Delphi Interior & Lighting Systems, the Warren, Mich.-based interior supplier owned by General Motors Corp. GM announced in July that it would spin off Delphi Automotive Systems — the Troy, Mich.-based parent of Delphi Interior & Lighting — into a free-standing company.
The company has sold its seating operations to Southfield, Mich.-based Lear Corp. and is in the process of unloading its lighting operations.
As Delphi evolves, it will become more focused on blending its interior parts with occupant-protection systems, such as air bags and child seats, said Rodney O'Neal, vice president and general manager of Delphi Interior & Lighting.
The company also plans to increase the use of electronic parts within its molded interior modules, O'Neal said.
``We're reshaping our portfolio,'' O'Neal said. ``We are an occupant-protection company with interior components. That's the way we can add value to our customer base.''
Another large interior-parts supplier, United Technologies Automotive of Dearborn, Mich., has a more general goal: to save customers money, said Richard Sloan, president of UTA's Interior Systems International.
The company is dedicated to moving wherever its customers go around the world and helping them meet cost targets, Sloan said. That strategy means that UTA also must work with its suppliers to keep costs down while integrating parts, he said.
``Most significant to [original equipment manufacturers] is improving profit margins,'' Sloan said.
``The supply base must show savings to contend for capital. To succeed, we have to continue offering quality products at an affordable price.''
The panelists agreed on one area: The interiors business is not for the weak of heart. Suppliers are grappling with the dual needs to become larger and more global in scope while finding new and innovative ways to cut costs, Sloan said.
Several suppliers, including ITT Automotive of Auburn Hills, Mich., and AlliedSignal Automotive of Morristown, N.J., have sold all or part of their interiors businesses to focus on other areas of a vehicle.
But suppliers on the panel said industry consolidation should subside as each supplier finds its niche.
In Europe, however, the mood is different, O'Neal said.
```I expect there to be more shakeouts in Europe and other parts of the world as [North American] suppliers move into those regions,'' O'Neal said. ``But in 10 years, I think there'll be the same number of larger players here. The names might change, though.''