Knock-off parts

by James Menzies

TORONTO, Ont. – Component manufacturers are expressing growing concern about the number of knock-off parts flooding the marketplace.

The parts, usually reverse-engineered to inferior standards, are popping up all across North America and manufacturers say they pose some serious safety risks.

“The problem is definitely getting worse,” admits David L. Plaster, global aftermarket marketing manager for Eaton Corporation and Roadranger Marketing. “Five to 10 years ago we were just beginning to see trouble. Consequently, many in the industry weren’t even talking about counterfeiting. Now, it’s become a daily conversation.”

Counterfeiters attempt to pass their components off as those created by genuine tier-one suppliers and some go so far as to copy the logo of the company they’re copying. It’s much like counterfeiting $20 bills, points out Dave Schultz, marketing manager for valves with Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems. Knock-off (or pirate) parts are components that are reverse-engineered and while they may not be branded with a fake logo, they are still a concern.

“We have not seen 100% counterfeiting where they’ve branded their products as Bendix product,” Schultz says. “What we run into are people making reverse-engineered products that look exactly like ours and if you step back a couple of feet you cannot tell the difference between them.”

To add further confusion, makers of knock-off parts tend to label them with parts numbers that are the same as on the genuine components. Parts numbers are not legally protected, Schultz points out.

Without the overhead costs of engineering and extensively testing their components, knock-off component makers can afford to offer their products at a reduced price.

A stingey fleet or owner/operator may find it difficult to pass up the opportunity to save 20-30% of the purchase price when buying aftermarket parts, but manufacturers point out knock-off parts generally cost more in the long run.

“The first thing to remember is that if a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” points out Plaster.

While knock-off components may cost less at the point of purchase, Schultz insists they usually wear out faster and can impact the performance of other components. A knock-off brake valve, for instance, can have a trickle down effect that impacts other components of the braking system.

However, it’s the safety risks that have legitimate manufacturers most concerned.

Pretty much any type of truck part can be cloned and some of the most frequent targets are braking system and fifth wheel components.

Mike Ginocchio, fifth wheel product manager with Holland, says fifth wheel rebuild kits are frequently copied with the pirate parts posing a public safety risk.

“People are opting for (the knock-offs) because it’s such a savings but they’re not taking into consideration some of the dangers they’re putting themselves in, like potentially dropping a trailer,” Ginocchio says.

Greg Thorwall, engineering group leader for fifth wheels at Holland adds “Our products have been developed over many years including testing in the lab and out at the test track and we know we have the right combination of materials, heat treatment and designs before we bring it to the market. The knock-off guys, I’m sure, don’t have a test lab and are not doing full-scale durability testing.”

While many knock-off parts are sold to customers looking to save a buck, manufacturers suggest other customers buy them thinking they’re purchasing a genuine part.

“I’m okay with people making an educated choice on what product they’re going to buy, but what hurts me is when people think they’re buying genuine parts and they’re not,” says Bendix’s Schultz. “We actually receive quite a bit of product back in through our warranty process that’s not genuine product and that leads me to believe there’s confusion in the market.”

Even the engineers who design the components say they have trouble visually discerning the differences between their own products and a knock-off.

“Components that look the same do not always perform to the same standards, as they may not be made with the same materials, processes and designs – all of which can affect the performance of the products,” points out Plaster.

Bendix has conducted extensive testing on knock-off components and found some major design flaws in the pirate parts.

Brake valves, for instance, with wall castings so thin that a rupture could occur in the side of the valve causing the brakes to come on at speed.

“When you lay them down next to each other, they may have the same internal parts, a spring here and an o-ring there,” explains Schultz. “But when you start measuring the specifics of the internal components, the material the o-rings are made out of may be a lesser quality so they don’t handle the higher and lower temperatures as expected and wear out quickly.”

Holland’s Ginocchio points out using knock-off parts such as a fifth wheel rebuild kit will also void the warranty of the original components.

So with all the tier-one suppliers in agreement that knock-off parts pose a serious public safety risk, why do these components continue to flood the market? Tracking down the culprits isn’t an easy task, they admit.

“Counterfeiters are remarkably resilient folks, as soon as you bring one group to a stop by putting a corrective measure in place, it doesn’t take very long at all for another group to get around it,” Plaster says. “Ship-from and ship-to points are constantly being changed as soon as we identify a counterfeit problem. So the pipelines from Asia and South America, which are the primary areas of concern for our company, are not always direct. Counterfeiters now have a very advanced, highly sophisticated network of shipping. For the Customs people, it’s very much like trying to find a needle in a haystack.”

The best way to combat counterfeiting, suppliers say, is to educate customers about the risks and deter them from supporting these so-called ‘parts pirates.’

Customers should always buy components from authorized distributors and ensure they are getting genuine parts.

All genuine components should come in packaging that carries the manufacturer’s logo.

And if there’s ever any question about whether or not a part is legitimate, the suppliers say to pick up the phone and call them.

They’ll be more than happy to investigate and help determine whether or not the component is genuine.

“Counterfeiting is a crime and purchasing counterfeits encourages more products to flood into the market,” points out Plaster.

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