"Suppliers will have to provide solutions and systems, instead of just parts."

Technologies, processes, relationships, and expectations are changing faster than ever before. Suppliers who react proactively will be more closely aligned with the customer, and will provide superior products, service, and value.

The next few years hold changes that may exceed anything Hendrickson has seen in its 72 years as a suspension supplier. New technologies will be adopted more rapidly. Traditional hierarchical supplier chains will become decentralized, placing everyone in closer alignment with the customer.

Suppliers will have to provide solutions and systems, instead of just parts. And along with suppliers, OEMs will be more responsive and flexible, since better-informed customers demand higher levels of quality, performance, and service.

The overriding concern for the industry is driver retention. To attract and retain good drivers, fleets need the most comfortable vehicles they can spec.

This will spur a faster evolution of suspension design. There will be more rapid transition from steel springs to rubber and air suspensions with both on-highway and vocational vehicles.

But manufacturers will have to do more than change their products; they'll have to change the way they do business. Customers now expect to have more influence on product design, function, and value. Suppliers at all levels are connecting directly with end-users to respond more quickly and successfully to customer requirements.

Suspension manufacturers will need to offer complete suspension design, development, and manufacturing capabilities. They will deliver greater support to OEM dealers and customers. A prime example of the changing supplier-OEM-customer relationship is modularization.

Instead of supplying separate components, suspension manufacturers are delivering modular systems - complete vehicle-specific undercarriages with fully integrated axles, springs, suspensions, structural elements, and brakes. This systems approach means faster, easier, and more cost-effective assembly for the OEM. For the customer, it enhances ride quality, reduces weight, and improves reliability.

Traditional concerns about reducing weight, cost, and maintenance and improving payload and safety are still primary customer requirements. Sophisticated computer design systems improve the functionality and strength-to-weight ratios of components. Improved metallurgy is making tougher, lighter materials cost-effective.

Automated manufacturing delivers greater precision and closer tolerances, which frees up designers to create even lighter, stronger, and more reliable components. Electronics and computer technologies will be integrated into more suspension systems. And vehicle control systems will become more prevalent.

The investment and commitment required to create suspension technologies to meet all these requirements will lead to more joint ventures and partnerships between suppliers and OEMs, with a corresponding increase in proprietary suspension systems and technologies.

Changes in the overall economy may have the greatest impact of all. The growth of Internet e-commerce is creating high demand for door-to-door delivery - increasing the need for delivery vehicles with smoother-riding, maintenance-free suspensions. And there are opportunities none of us can predict that will alter the way our products and companies look beyond 2000.