When a safety critical item fails on a truck or trailer the repercussions can be extensive, from expensive down time right through to lives lost, depending on the incident. NADINE VON MOLTKE examines the rise of pirated parts in South Africa and the implications of this growing market.
The brakes and bearings industries have historically been dominated by a select number of well-known brands. As trusted industry names, these brands have marketed themselves based on extensive investments into research and development and the resultant high-quality products they produce.
However, the Chinese industrial revolution has shifted the playing field, not only because many European, Scandinavian and US-based brands are now manufactured in China, but because of the rise of “generic” Chinese parts as well.
Generic parts tend to look like their branded counterparts, but lack the research, materials and production processes of the more established brands. This lack of quality goes hand in hand with a cheaper price, however, which can be appealing to buyers, particularly during tougher economic times.
“If buyers choose a cheaper alternative part, that is their decision,” says Enoch Silcock, national sales and marketing manager at Wabco. “Obviously, as an original equipment manufacturer (OEM)-approved supplier of brakes – which are safety critical items – we do not recommend choosing a cheaper price over quality, but at least generic parts are not pretending to be anything other than what they are.”
Which is certainly not the case with counterfeit parts. “The problem with counterfeit parts is that more often than not the end user does not even realise he has fitted an inferior product until it is too late,” confirms Warren Walker, engineering manager at SKF South Africa.
“Counterfeiters go to a tremendous amount of trouble to make their products look like original products, and because our customers do not necessarily know what to look for on the part itself, and the packaging looks identical, they do not realise they have been deceived.”
In fact, according to Walker, counterfeit products are sold to the end user at the same price as original parts. “This maximises the counterfeiter’s profits while also assuaging any suspicions that the products may be fake,” he says.
“Just by putting SKF branding on a bearing, counterfeiters can sell it for three to four times more money than other lower quality and generic brands.”
However, while the end user might pay the same price for genuine and fake parts, it is unlikely the distributor does. “The only reason that I can see why a distributor would source a product other than through the approved channels is because of a better price,” continues Walker. “And if this is the case, the question of whether or not those parts are real should certainly be asked.”
Richard Pinard, managing director of Top Class Auto, an approved local distributor of US-based Timken products by Timken SA, agrees. “We have recently started seeing a surge of counterfeit Timken products on the market,” he relates. “When we trace these products back to their source, we are finding suppliers who source products from both ourselves and oversees. If the product has not been sourced through us, it is not a guaranteed Timken product. It’s as simple as that.
“Many of the distributors who we have found importing products from oversees markets claim ignorance regarding the genuineness of these products, but unless they are getting them cheaper, why go that route in the first place? And if they are that much cheaper, surely alarm bells should be ringing?”
According to Pinard, in the past, the most Timken had to deal with were knock-off products that resembled the original, particularly in branding and packaging, but had not crossed the counterfeiting line.
“We would see ‘Timyen’-branded products on shelves, mimicking Timken colours and packaging, but quite clearly not the real thing. Counterfeits are much harder to spot.”
Ironically, the rise of counterfeited products is closely linked to the growth of the “generic” market. “The production of generic products provided the ideal opportunity for counterfeiters to capitalise on,” explains Walker. “These products already look like the real thing, all they need is the right branding and for careful attention to be paid to packaging and viola, we have a counterfeit product.”
Tremendous attention is paid to the packaging in particular. “Swedish exports must be packaged in specially fumigated wooden crates,” he continues. “Not only is this faked, but the Swedish export-approval stamp as well.”
But attention to detail does not stop there. “The manufacturing process of our bearings involves very specific heat treatments and hardening standards,” explains Walker. “These processes leave a dark discolouration on the metal. Since the production of counterfeits cannot emulate these processes, they paint the metal instead, to make it look like the real thing – possibly without any understanding of what that discolouration signifies.”
Which is all fine and well for aesthetic purposes, but highly problematic when it comes to the actual functioning of these safety critical items. “In early October, we were asked to fly to Cape Town for an investigation into an incident in which a truck’s trailer caught fire,” recounts Pinard. “It was established that the bearings were to blame, which was why we were contacted (they were supposedly Timken bearings), but after a brief investigation on our side it was quickly apparent that what we were dealing with were counterfeit parts.”
This story is neither new, nor unique to the bearings industry. BPW Axles SA, a manufacturer of axles and brakes, has had similar experiences as well.
“In 2006, we had an unusually high number of failures on BPW brake drums,” explains Terence Kruger, national sales director, BPW Axles SA. “Many of these were replaced at great cost to BPW SA as a goodwill gesture to our customers, but our suspicions were alerted.”
Then, in late 2006, a bakkie belonging to a trailer parts dealer entered the organisation’s loading yard laden with BPW brake drums not purchased from BPW.
“A few questions revealed that these drums were obtained from an ‘alternative parts’ distributor,” says Kruger. “It was established beyond any doubt that these drums were counterfeit and we offered to replace them with original BPW drums, keeping the fake parts for further investigation.
“Trailer brake drums are safety-critical items and as such, BPW goes to great lengths to ensure every brake drum that reaches the market has been rigorously tested using the very latest technology,” he adds.
As is the case with both SKF and Timken’s products, substantial research, a focus on the correct processes, rigorous testing and stringent quality control ensure that BPW’s safety-critical products meet their customers’ expectations.
Counterfeit products not only endanger each respective company’s reputation, they endanger the businesses of those operators who have fitted them, as well as the lives of the drivers of the trucks and any other road users who might be caught in an accident as a result of brake or bearing failure.
“Fitting inferior bearings on a trailer can have a number of consequences for an operator,” explains Walker. “First, at the most basic level, inferior bearings result in shorter grease life. If the specifications are wrong and the bore of the bearing is not the correct fit, it will creep on the shaft, causing damage to the axle.
“If the hardness of the bearing isn’t up to spec, the results can be loss of clearance, wear, internal clearance changes and incorrect wheel alignments, to name just a few.
“Best-case scenario is an operator replacing tyres more often than normal or battling with poor fuel efficiency,” says Walker.
“Worst-case scenario is a trailer catching fire, an axle or wheel hub snapping off or even the trailer or truck overturning,” agrees Pinard. “Down time for an operator is bad enough, but the safety implications of low-grade products are simply too high to ignore.”
South Africa has one of the world’s highest truck accident rates and, according to Kruger, trailer brake failure is often cited as the cause of these accidents.
“While brake drums do fail, this is often because of overloading, poor brake maintenance and driver abuse,” he says. “However, the fact that unscrupulous operators sell poorly made, untested brake drums into the market only heightens the risk of serious road accidents and fatalities.”
But what can OEM manufacturers do about this influx of counterfeit parts? “Our biggest tool has been creating awareness among our distributors and end users,” says Walker. “We need our clients to know that there are pirated parts out there, and we need to give them some idea of how to differentiate between a fake and the real thing.”
Unfortunately, there is a fine line between educating customers and giving counterfeiters ammunition to make better fakes. “We need to be careful about how much information we release in terms of identifying fakes,” adds Pinard. “If we are too precise and detailed, counterfeiters will merely fix their mistakes, which is not what we want at all.”
Another option is legal action. For example, following the discovery of the counterfeited BPW parts related earlier, the manufacturer consulted with its lawyers and decided that legal action was necessary.
“In February 2007, the premises of a trailer spare parts distributor was raided by the Department of Trade and Industry (dti) and the SCCU (Serious Commercial Crime Unit). More than 200 brake drums were seized and placed in a warehouse for safe keeping pending court proceedings,” relates Kruger.
“Despite the legal costs, BPW SA had to make a stand against this injurious action. From a commercial perspective, no manufacturer can afford to have its products pirated and sold at less than their legitimate market price. As far as corporate responsibility is concerned, the seizure and destruction of these illegal brake drums is a clear statement to the industry and the motoring public that BPW always puts safety first,” he continues.
SKF has also pursued similar action against a large distributor whose entire stock was found to be counterfeited. “The local distributor actually pled ignorance and was very cooperative, which allowed SKF to find and take action against the company’s oversees supplier,” says Walker.
“Campaigning against counterfeited parts, raising awareness and always being available for clients to check a product should they suspect they have bought fake parts is both resource and time consuming, but it has to be done,” he concludes.
“We need to protect the integrity of our products and industry, as well as the businesses and drivers of our clients, and even the safety of our local roads as a whole.”