How did Johnson Controls overtake archrival Lear Corp. to become the world's fifth largest auto supplier in 2003?

The US interiors specialist's record of taking bold steps has been a key factor.

In fact, JCI's innovative strategies, which range from consulting vehicle buyers directly to focusing on adding value to sub-systems, may influence other Tier 1 interior suppliers.

The new technologies and concepts on display at Johnson Controls' stand at the Detroit motor show demonstrated an imaginative approach to the interiors market.

In addition to several products that have recently gone into production, JCI showed new technologies that will be in series production within three years and an innovative interior concept.

JCI looks beyond the OEM to the end-consumer. It devotes significant resources to researching what vehicle buyers want to see in interiors.

An interiors supplier has an advantage when doing this kind of research. It can research in a less-brand specific way than carmakers can.

To develop its Leap Seating system, JCI teamed up with office furniture maker SteelCase, which had already invested $US30 million to develop the technology involved in the seat system for sale in its own markets. It aims for series production in 2006.

Leap Seating "is a complete redesign of the vehicle seat, starting with a good chiropractic design." And a new design will also offer opportunities to re-evaluate design and manufacturing processes.

The 3E Concept (Economy, Ecology and Ergonomics) is "designed to appeal to several generations of buyer, and provide solutions for social problems beyond the auto itself," said Jeff Wandell, president of the Automotive Group, at a press conference in Detroit.

"Green" materials such as recyclable plastics dominate, and the large amount of light entering the cabin "contributes significantly to occupant ergonomics."

Adding value to subsystems

JCI is positioning itself as both an integrator of complete interiors and a leading supplier of key interior sub-systems, including instrument panels, cockpits, seats and overhead systems.

JCI's strategy starts "by adding value to outsourced modules through component capability and technology," says Jeff Edwards, group vice president and general manager for North America/Japan, in an interview with in Detroit. "We're not focused on building modular capability if that's only to free up space on the OEM assembly line."

JCI supplies the seating system for the 2004 North American Truck of the Year, Ford's F150 pickup. It also supplies the F150's Railport adaptable overhead system, which can be displayed in dealerships and personalised for each individual buyer.

RailPort will also appear in late 2004 on GM's family of crossover sport vans.

One of the "truck of the year" jurors said he gave the Nissan Titan a high score, but gave the F150 a perfect one for "the quality of its interior fit and finish."

Lagging in cockpits

But while JCI has 30% share of the $38 billion global seating market, it holds under 5% share of the global cockpit business - worth around $52.5 billion.

In North America, Delphi and Visteon still lead the market by virtue of having been the former in-house operations of GM and Ford. SAS, a joint venture between Siemens VDO and Faurecia, is the European market leader.

Nonetheless, a strong performance in difficult circumstances last year reflects the success of Johnson Controls' approach.

JCI's sales rose to $17.1 billion in the fiscal year that ended last September 30, an increase of 14% over the previous year.

Excluding acquisitions and currency effects, JCI still showed 4% overall organic sales growth. Sales in its North American interiors business grew by around 4%, while European interiors revenues increased 6%.