Risky Business - Counterfeit and Fake Parts

The savings can be short-term when replacing OEM parts and assemblies with ones of questionable origin.

By Bob McDougall, Contributing Editor

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There are numerous and increasing challenges to food processors these days. Bad replacement parts for your machines shouldn't be one of them.

One danger from a failing circuit breaker. The other danger is a counterfeit one may not fail when it’s supposed to.
One danger from a failing circuit breaker. The other danger is a counterfeit one may not fail when it's supposed to.

Counterfeit parts, also known as fakes, bandits or tramps, are typically new or replacement parts that are deceptive in some fashion. They may be sold separately or incorporated into assemblies or fabrications offered for sale. They may be passed off as the real thing or may be openly offered to food plant managers as "just as good as the original equipment manufacturer's (OEM's) parts -- but at lower cost."

Counterfeit parts may be falsely branded, imperfectly manufactured or refurbished, carry unearned certifications or quality designations and be poorly tested - if tested at all. They may be visibly different from legitimate parts, or they may appear identical. They may work satisfactorily or they may fail disastrously, harming operators or damaging equipment or facilities. They may compromise products or processes, and seriously impair consumer safety. They're a "crap shoot," according to one OEM, and they are on the increase.

Counterfeiting and piracy of all kinds cost the U.S. economy $200-250 billion annually, according to the Anti-Counterfeiting and Piracy Initiative of the National Chamber Foundation, U.S. Chamber of Commerce. This is almost one-third of such losses worldwide. Estimates of resulting American job losses approach 750,000. "Organized crime thrives on counterfeiting," Ronald Noble, secretary general of Interpol, has been quoted as saying.

Related Counterfeit Parts Content

Given the near-universal availability of reputable branded and warranted parts, the only reason for the existence of fakes is financial. Someone somewhere in the supply chain is making an inflated profit through misrepresentation or someone else is trying to save a buck.

In most cases, the reasons they are cheaper are inferior performance and reduced safety. The results can range from increased downtime to personnel dangers - and in all cases where they are discovered, counterfeit parts void equipment warranties, some even retroactively.

"In our business, we see both counterfeit and non-OEM replacement parts," says Brad Gillispie, national sales manager-aftermarket in the Santa Fe, Texas, office of SPX Process Equipment (www.spxprocessequipment.com), which supplies such food industry products as Waukesha Cherry-Burrell pumps and valves and Lightnin mixers. "Some fabricators will try to reverse-engineer and duplicate our parts. They can get close, but they don't truly duplicate them. The parts are lacking in something - tolerances, material specification, hardness - and all those things have a lot to do with performance.

"One customer we have here in Texas was using local shops for repairs and noticed they weren't getting the life expectancy they should have out of their gearboxes," Gillispie continues. "They called us in and we found it was because of counterfeit parts. What they saved on those parts was not enough to cover the more frequent gearbox repairs."

Fakes are everywhere

The ideal part to fake is a high-cost item the value of which lies in some character or property not visible to the eye. Components with complex heat treatments, specialty machining tolerances, exhaustive testing certification and expensive compounds or alloys all present ideal opportunities for counterfeiting.

The real and the fake: The Square D 15-amp breaker on the left with the red tab visible is real. Its near-twin on the right is a counterfeit.
The real and the fake: The Square D 15-amp breaker on the left with the red tab visible is real. Its near-twin on the right is a counterfeit.

Likewise, assembled components needing significant or costly skilled labor are at high risk.

One common example is electrical circuit breakers. Found in plants worldwide, in essentially all electrically operated equipment as well as homes across America, breakers are critical safety devices.

"Counterfeit products pose serious health and safety hazards. They can fail catastrophically. Anyone near one of the counterfeit breakers when it explodes [can be] subjected to extreme heat, sprays of molten metal and a powerful blast," says Jim Pauley,vice president of industry and government relations for Schneider Electric North America, which makes Square D, Telemecanique and other leading brands. "Alternately, if a fake breaker should fail to trip, overload and fire may result."

While fakes have been seen for more than 20 years, few were in North American markets, Pauley says, and the lower quality of such fakes usually was evident. Over the past few years, however, the problem has grown enormously, both in the quantity and sophistication of the fakes. Recently, the scope of counterfeiting has enlarged to include other devices, and the fakes are becoming harder to detect.

After a number of large seizures of counterfeits by customs officials, manufacturers and certifying bodies, such as UL and NEMA, have begun providing awareness and counterfeit-detection training to their distribution chain and to law enforcement bodies. Others have tried to better control the distribution chain, believing non-OEM representatives are at least easier to fool and may be complicit.

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