When you knowingly buy a cheap facsimile of a product, you expect the price to be lower (significantly, in most cases), along with a corresponding reduction in performance. That was certainly my thought process when I picked up a “Rolex” watch as a kitsch birthday gift for my dad at one of the fake markets in China. It crapped out less than a week after he strapped it to his wrist.
So here’s what is particularly troubling about the case of the counterfeit SKF bearings that were seized in the Czech Republic in April from a non-authorized dealer: In the instances where SKF was able to trace the product to an end user, the purchase price was in line with that of a genuine SKF bearing. In other words, and unlike my Rolex, people thought they were buying the real thing.
“Even though the counterfeit bearings are typically of very low quality, they usually have a high “look-alike” appearance to the premium brands,” says Ingalill Ostman, Senior Vice President, Group Communication, SKF. “The packaging is made to look identical to that of the premium brand, and an unsuspecting customer cannot tell the difference.”
In the Czech Republic incident, local police seized more than 800 different types of bearings in medium to large sizes (some shown above). In all, 20,000 counterfeit pieces were grabbed. How did it all go down? According to Ostman, SKF was initially contacted by an authorized distributor, who had been approached by an individual who was offering bearings at a relatively low price. “Shortly thereafter,” says Ostman, “We had a complaint from an end user who had experienced some problems with what he thought were genuine SKF bearings.” The unauthorized dealer in question had been selling to other dealers, as well as end users.
The real concern, of course, is that there is the potential for a real calamity if fake bearings are used in a critical application, as they typically have a much lower loading capacity and/or service life. “There are several cases we know of in which counterfeit bearings lasted just a few hours before causing an emergency shutdown,” says Ostman.
Though no one tracks market stats for counterfeit products (they are illegal after all), the problem is on the rise. One study from Asia Risk Group puts the increase in counterfeit goods at more than 20% since the start of the downturn, and Ostman says this is consistent with what they see happening in the premium bearing market.
SKF believes that the vast majority of counterfeit bearings are originating from China, and that the export is typically handled by traders that offer goods through Internet sites. These traders do not carry stock of their own, but rather subcontract the remarking of cheaper bearings once an order is received. Some even go so far as to provide certificates of authenticity (fake, of course) to lure in unsuspecting customers.
“Anyone buying from these traders is either very aware that what they are buying is counterfeit or inexperienced with the bearing market,” says Ostman.
So how do design engineers, purchasing agents, and the like protect against bogus bearings? Very simply: Buy from trusted sources only.
Note to self: Get dad’s next birthday gift at Tiffany’s.