European automakers are shifting to larger corner modules in their new generations of vehicles.
Suppliers of suspension components are integrating brakes, struts, shock absorbers and other components. But some automakers, still jealous of control of ride performance, are doing the modules in-house.
'We are getting prepared for a very rapid development of corner modules for our customers over the next five years,' says Mannesmann Sachs AG Chairman Harold Klotzbach.
Tenneco Automotive is another big player in the shock absorber business with 15 percent of the European market. It says it is working on seven corner module projects for different customers in Europe.
In 2001, Magneti Marelli plans to introduce complete suspension modules including wheel and tire. Its main customer, Fiat Auto, is moving quickly into modular assembly. Fiat has identified outsourced corner modules as one of the first volume modules, according to Tommaso Le Pera, senior vice president of purchasing.
Automakers are open to buying the modules if they save money and improve quality. Says Alan Elliott, manager of manufacturing for Jaguar's S-type, 'If it meets the specifications, we would consider pursuing a corner module.' The S-type uses some large subassemblies, but not a corner module. Elliott says Jaguar's parent company, Ford Motor Co., supports more modules and easier assembly. 'It's part of a progression, and it's never-ending,' he says.
Ford, Renault, Fiat, Volvo, Mercedes-Benz and VW are among the carmakers considering buying corner modules from suppliers.
Automotive specialist Louis Bailoni at consultant A.T. Kearney says integrated corner modules can cut costs by 10 to 20 percent, as well as reduce weight and improve quality.
Mannesmann Sachs has more than one-third of the world shock absorber market. Klotzbach expects most of the company's customers to move to corner modules for their next generation of cars.
Mannesmann Sachs' next generation of corner modules will include brakes, struts, strut mounts and bearing elements, and possibly suspension bushings and vibration-control elements, Klotzbach says.
He predicts that supplier-integrated corner modules 'will account for more than 30 percent of the European market in 2005.'
Some automakers, such as Volkswagen, assemble some of their own modules. Renault makes in-house modules.
Suppliers engineer and assemble only a small percentage of the market today. But component makers expect that outsourcing will grow.
Tenneco already supplies front and rear corner modules to Mitsubishi and Volvo's NedCar plant in Born, the Netherlands, and the front corner for the Mercedes-Benz V-class van made in Vitoria, Spain. It also supplies corner modules to Seat.
Jan Wijnhoven, Tenneco Automotive Europe's vice president for product engineering, says early modules were just assemblies made from outsourced parts. But 'we found that if we just assembled a module they would still come to us if there was a problem.
'Now you are given responsibility to integrate the suspension corner, including coil spring and top mounts. The interaction of all the components is tremendously important.'
So Tenneco has developed closer links with preferred suppliers. Tenneco has a joint venture with axles specialist Benteler and brake system supplier Continental Teves to supply complete suspension modules, including brakes and axle parts.
The 2001 Ford Fiesta replacement is expected to use such a module.
'One of the secrets is to be able to develop the module or system with your partners and not be forced by the car manufacturer to use a particular design or supplier,' says Wijnhoven.
Tenneco is growing its product engineering team from 69 people in 1998 to a planned 102 in 2000.
The demands on the suspension systems are growing. Noise reduction has become more important, says Sandro Paparelli, vice president of original-equipment sales at Tenneco.
'Because the car is so silent,' he says, 'they do not like to hear a `swish' or a `chuckle' noise from the shock or suspension.'
Tenneco is working on continuously variable electronic damper, height levelling with air-springs, and roll control.
Klotzbach at Sachs also says that customers will demand a higher system content on their next generation of shock absorbers. 'We see a great future for intelligent, high-tech chassis modules and systems' he says.
Key elements include the extension of active body control (ABC), continuous damping control (CDC), and a shift to lightweight aluminum dampers. Sachs already supplies the ABC system to the new Mercedes-Benz CL, and CDC to the new Ferrari 360 Modena.
In the future all Ferrari and Maserati models will feature CDC.
The future for the growth of corner modules lies in integrating still more functions into modules, says A.T. Kearney's Bailoni. But automakers continue to force lower prices.
And there are limits to how much an automaker will allow a supplier to do. Suppliers can integrate the systems that make up a chassis, says Bailoni, 'but ride performance is a critical area, and carmakers will not be prepared to give up full responsibility for the area.'