One’s fake and one’s geniune — can you spot the difference?

You know the old adage about getting what you pay for? It’s as true for buying truck parts as it is for anything else.

If you step up to the counter at your local parts supplier looking for an air-dryer cartridge and are offered two different products – one a brand name, and the other a knockoff – at considerably different prices, odds are the knockoff won’t last as long as the OE item. It may be tempting to go for the cheaper, non-brand-name product, but consider the longer-term expense of making more frequent replacements.

Heavy-duty truck knockoff parts are copied and sold at a discount worldwide – and it’s a profitable business. The Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association (MEMA), a U.S. umbrella group representing manufacturers of vehicle parts, tools, and supplies, estimates the problem in the U.S. is worth US$12 billion in lost sales annually.

That’s the big picture. For you the consumer, buying knockoffs could result in anything from less-than-expected service life to a safety hazard if the product is a critical part like a brake valve.

Knockoff parts are copies of OE components that purport to be compatible or can be substituted for an OE part – often called “will fit” parts. They’re not marketed as being an original, but may use the same part number or a close variation of the part number, like adding an extra numeral or letter at the end. You may not spot the difference.

And you can find them everywhere.

“I think we all sell a few of them,” says David Lippoway, regional sales manager for Winnipeg’s Fort Garry Industries. “But we try to stick with the brand-name product 99% of the time so we have the quality, backing, and support of the name-brand suppliers. However some shops promote knockoff brands because they can appear cheaper than the shop selling OE parts.”

Dave Schultz, of brake-parts manufacturer Bendix’s valve group, says his company has been seeing knockoff copies of its air valves, air dryers, and filtration products for the past three years.

He says overseas manufacturers procure original Bendix parts, reverse- engineer them, and create copies. “The parts are not designed or tested to original OE-level specs, and therefore you’re going to have performance issues,” he warns.

“We’ve come across situations where the performance doesn’t meet customer expectations, but the customer isn’t aware that they’re not genuine replacement parts. Often they’re marketed under the same part numbers and nomenclature that customers are used to, and they become confused and misguided as to the origin of the part and whether they’re genuine or not,” Schultz added.

The parts may look identical, and the packaging will often refer to trademarks and part numbers that are consistent with original equipment. Often the knockoff will come in a plain white box with legitimate looking part numbers and OE references.

Lippoway agrees: “From a customer standpoint, sometimes I’m not sure if they know if they’re getting the OE or knockoff part. With many customers, if you give them something that looks the same, they won’t know the difference.”

Schultz says knockoff parts can be found through most normal distribution sources. The knockoff manufacturers find distributors that will import them and they make their way through the normal distribution channels and onto store shelves.

ArvinMeritor marketing manager Brad Begley says his company is also seeing knockoff versions of its higher-volume items like foundation brake products, as well as hardware kits, camshafts, air-dryer cartridges, and U-joints. “In most cases, regarding fit, form, and function, the knockoffs are very similar to the OE product they’re meant to replace, but visually, whether it’s a surface treatment or in other ways, they’re usually not identical, and they certainly don’t have the brand markings that an OE product would have,” says Begley.

And in terms of quality, he says the knockoffs run the gamut of shoddy to “quite good,” he says. “But in most cases you get what you pay for – they offer parts at prices where anybody would look at it and know there’s no way the product is as good as what you could expect at that price.”

Bendix has performed quality tests on cloned parts and found problems with both the materials and quality control. For example, O-rings and springs on cloned brake valves aren’t even close to OE specs. Cloned O-rings wore out faster and were unable to handle high operating temperatures. And the springs were similarly inferior – to the point where Schultz says there were concerns about the valve performing correctly, causing imbalance in the brake system and excess wear on the friction materials.

Buyer Beware
If buyers give in to the temptation of buying what looks to be a lower-cost alternative, there’s more to consider than the upfront cost of the part. “You won’t have the same guarantees in terms of reliability, durability, and quality,” says Schultz. “We find the performance isn’t there with the majority of the cloned products so you’re going to have to make more frequent replacements.”

And in addition to more vehicle downtime and faster replacement cycles, there’s the risk of inferior performance in a safety-related product like brakes. And that could be anything from increased stopping distances to complete brake failure.

“Awareness is the big thing,” says Schultz. “Once buyers are aware of the issue, they have to make their own choices – if they choose to replace with genuine, then they should look for the brand markings on the packaging, or ask the dealer for the genuine OE part.”

Psst – Wanna Buy Some Brake Pads?

Remember the caricature of the seedy street-corner hood selling fake Rolexes out of his trenchcoat? He’s back, only now he’s flogging counterfeit heavy-duty truck parts. But unlike knockoff parts, counterfeit parts are designed to look like, and are sold as, OE parts.

“It’s easy to replicate the packaging, right down to the OE logos,” says Brian Duggan, the Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association (MEMA)’s representative in Washington, DC. “If you’re talking about oil, it’s a matter of replicating the brand-name can. If it’s filters, it’s making a perfect copy of the OE box. The counterfeit product is a look-alike and from a quick visual inspection, it’s hard to tell.”

According to Duggan, counterfeit parts are often brought in from places like China, repackaged, and then co-mingled with a shipment of genuine product. Duggan says MEMA has come across a few instances of counterfeit engine parts and friction material for brakes that were sold as genuine OE product.

“I really don’t know of a surefire way of protecting yourself,” Duggan says. “If a part just doesn’t seem right, you really want to bring that product back to the seller and bring it to their attention. At least be mindful that this problem exists, and insist that someone look into it. It’s going to be very hard to get at this problem until there’s a change in market behavior.”

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