Are you bearing an unnecessary risk?

Counterfeit bearings can lead to equipment downtime and safety problems.

By Randy L. Bowen, SKF USA

True story: A steel mill suspected that a non-authorized dealer had supplied a large quantity of counterfeit bearings. The mill reported that after only two or three hours of operation, the replacement bearings were performing so poorly that the mill’s maintenance team was forced to shut down the machinery, dismount the bearings and remount the older bearings. Close inspection concluded that more than 1,000 suspect bearings were, in fact, fakes.

Counterfeit bearings are surfacing virtually everywhere along the global supply chain, and they are not limited by size or type. While the general perception may be that smaller, easier-to-copy bearings for automotive or consumer product applications are the most prevalent targets, large-size bearing counterfeits have become increasingly common in the industrial aftermarket, especially when availability of true product is in short supply.

Much more than a manufacturer’s brand will be at risk with counterfeits. For maintenance and reliability professionals, fake bearings potentially can pose safety risks or unplanned, and costly, equipment downtime.

True story: For one unfortunate petrochemical processor, it took an emergency shutdown to reveal that counterfeit bearings were in play. Following just two days of operation, one of these bearings failed in a critical application, forcing an unscheduled work stoppage. Subsequent analysis confirmed the counterfeits, which were replaced with genuine components, but not before the counterfeits had exacted a heavy price in costs and lost productivity.

Illegal bearing manufacturers deploy devious techniques to fool customers and, increasingly, it is becoming much more difficult to distinguish the real deal from counterfeits. The truth is that fake bearings won’t have “fake bearings” written on them. They won’t be scratched, rusty or dirty. They won’t even necessarily be less expensive. They appear to be genuine, premium-brand products, and are marketed as such.

And they may take several forms.

  • New, low-quality bearings may be labeled with false brand markings to justify a higher price and supplied in imitation packaging visually identical to trusted brands.
  • Bearings may be remanufactured and then sold with no indication that they have been remanufactured.
  • Very old or used bearings may be cleaned, polished and supplied without the buyer being informed about their history.

Today’s sophisticated graphics technologies have aided and abetted unscrupulous manufacturers, who have the capability to produce extremely good copies of product boxes, increasing the odds that their counterfeit bearings will slip into what customers perceive as legitimate industrial distribution channels.

The bottom line is that instead of a purchasing a premium quality product designed to perform as intended, operations may end up purchasing a product with unpredictable quality for a price much higher than it is worth.

How can plant operations across industries protect against counterfeits?

Most counterfeit bearings look so much like the real thing that only a trained technician can tell them apart. But counterfeits can cause real problems. Counterfeit bearings can degrade and fail quickly, even catastrophically, bringing a plant’s production line to a halt. The fallout could include expensive damage to capital equipment or injury to machine operators and other plant personnel. In addition, when a counterfeit bearing fails, there may be financial and legal consequences for the buyer.

The bearings also may fail early due to inadequate or incorrect lubricants being used, including a failure to machine the bearing’s lubrication grooves into the outer raceways. Others may suffer from poor sealing, non-hardened or poorly ground raceways, or improper cage designs. Additional problems may include inappropriate packaging of the bearing or incorrect storage prior to use.

How can plant operations across industries protect against counterfeits?

Universally, the best way to safeguard authenticity is by sourcing through a manufacturer’s authorized distributors, who bring much to the table in the fight against fakes, or buying direct from the manufacturer. Purchases should only be made through such trusted and reliable sources. Distributors authorized by the manufacturer should be able to produce documents or signage affirming the manufacturer’s support.

The counterfeit-bearing problem has grown so much globally that the World Bearing Assn. (WBA, www.stopfakebearings.com) and member companies have launched a counterfeit awareness campaign to make premium-brand customers aware of the risks and problems with counterfeits. Every major manufacturer understands what is at stake and is actively taking steps to combat counterfeiting.

In our case, a full-time and globally oriented brand protection team is involved in worldwide efforts to stem the tide. Successful raids continue to be conducted with assistance from law enforcement authorities to choke off sources and close the illegal businesses; efforts are being made to increase awareness about the existence of counterfeits and how to find sources for genuine products; and special anti-counterfeit marking has been developed to help trained personnel in spotting fakes.

The overall issue of counterfeit bearings should immediately raise a red flag for maintenance, repair and operations personnel. Buyers need to be aware of the situation, understand the potential risk to their people and their business, and establish processes to verify that a bearing is genuine.

For those who use counterfeit bearings either knowingly or otherwise, the risks are much greater than any short-term savings they might realize. They have no redress to the product manufacturer, warranty claims are out the window, and all related costs, liability and claims must be assumed when the bearings fail.

The use of counterfeit bearings on high-value capital machinery ultimately will almost certainly impact the operating reliability of a machine, because they will have been manufactured to inferior quality standards.

The unquestionable conclusion is that while maintenance and reliability personnel may not be able to readily detect whether a bearing is real or fake, the machinery will tell the story soon enough.

Randy L. Bowen is vice president-distributor sales at SKF USA (www.skfusa.com). Email him at randy.l.bowen@skf.com.

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