Get Your Proper Bearings

Some common misconceptions can lead you into trouble.

By Mark Rosenzweig, Editor in Chief

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In late July, an American living in China blogged about the latest Chinese knockoff — a fake Apple Store. "BirdAbroad," a 27-year-old woman, who lives in Kunming, spotted a new Apple Store just a few blocks from her apartment.

She blogged: "It looked like an Apple store. It had the classic Apple store winding staircase and weird upstairs sitting area. The employees were even wearing those blue t-shirts with the chunky Apple name tags around their necks." And, after striking up some conversations with salespeople, she realized they really thought they worked for Apple. BirdAbroad has even posted a video tour of the store.

Fake bearings usually sell for the same price as genuine versions.

However, Apple doesn't have a store in Kunming. "This was a total Apple store ripoff. A beautiful ripoff — a brilliant one — the best ripoff store we had ever seen (and we see them every day)," she commented.

While the store isn't an authorized Apple reseller, it appears the products at least were genuine.

Fake products, which the Chinese call "shanzai," are the real problem to my mind. Such knockoffs are rife among consumer products — bogus Rolex watches and Louis Vuitton handbags exemplify the "high end," but no branded product seems too humble for a ripoff.

However, the problem extends far beyond that. Indeed, knockoff industrial goods are far more prevalent than many people realize. And they can pose significant performance and safety issues. For instance, a few years ago I cited concerns about knockoff hazardous-area equipment.

Equipment components that may require periodic replacement, such as bearings, certainly attract unethical sellers, too. It's a vast worldwide market largely served by distributors — so, peddling bogus bearings is relatively easy and lucrative.

Testifying to that, SKF, a global maker of bearings, lubrication systems and other products, must continually contend with knockoff bearings. This was underscored by a presentation made at the company's recent Technical Press Day by Randy Bowen, vice president, distributor sales.

Counterfeit SKF bearings invariably don't come remotely close to the quality and precision of genuine ones. That's not surprising, of course. Unethical sellers don't worry about substandard materials and poor manufacturing techniques. Bowen showed some photos taken after raids at production sites — many of these don't deserve to be called factories because of their dirt floors, rudimentary equipment, products piled in heaps, etc. Sometimes, the knockoff artists just buy cheap no-name or second-hand bearings and simply rebrand them.

Not only does equipment performance suffer because of the knockoff bearings, but also significant safety issues may arise.

A number of common misconceptions exacerbate the problem, says Bowen. Many people mistakenly believe:

• counterfeit products are easily identifiable;
• knockoffs are quite rare outside of Asia;
• customers buy them knowingly; and
• the fakes are sold at a much lower price.

"Our main problem is not that people do not have the knowledge… but rather that they think they have the knowledge," he laments.

Fakes comes in all sizes of bearings without exception and usually sell for the same price as genuine versions, Bowen notes. The problem afflicts all geographic regions and all premium brands, he adds.

Some Internet sellers blatantly boast that they sell SKF products but really supply knockoffs.

Bowen displayed a variety of counterfeits, illustrating how difficult it can be to spot them. While knockoff makers don't focus on precision manufacturing, they certainly do pay a lot of attention to replicating the look of the genuine article. Branding, model designations and part numbers on the products closely resembled the real thing. And the packaging often looked virtually identical.

The moral, he stresses, is to buy only from authorized distributors.

SKF certainly isn't alone in trying to address the issue of bogus bearings. The World Bearing Association is building visibility for the problem via www.stopfakebearings.com.

Also, pay attention to the bearings in equipment you plan to purchase. While not likely fakes, they still can cause real problems. For instance, as Jason Laws points out in his article "Select the Right Centrifugal Pump" bargain pumps may use inferior bearings or involve other compromises. "If so, you haven't found a bargain. You've found a costly headache," he warns.

So, get your proper bearings when it comes to buying bearings.


Mark Rosenzweig is Chemical Processing's REAL Editor in Chief. You can e-mail him at mrosenzweig@putman.net.
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