In 2017, working with law-enforcement authorities, SKF destroyed 15 tonnes of counterfeit bearings that were identified and seized several years ago. The batch, which comprised 17,000 individual items, had been destined for unsuspecting customers in the marine supply chain.
That haul was unusually large, but in other ways it was far from unique. Fake bearings are widespread in the maritime sector. Our analysis suggests that up to 50% of vessel managers may have inadvertently purchased counterfeit parts in recent years. These statistics are based on the fact that Greek shipowners have the largest fleet globally representing 20% of global tonnage. Athens continues to be the biggest marine cluster in the world.
When we share our data with customers, their first reaction is usually disbelief. Few marine maintenance or purchasing professionals have any idea that counterfeiting is an issue in product categories such as bearings. Fewer still realise that it is an activity with such scale and reach. It’s a common issue for many global brand bearing manufacturers.
That’s one reason why the marine sector has proved to be a lucrative market for counterfeiters, but there are other important factors at play. First there’s the nature of the product. Bearings vary widely in the detail of their design and construction, with different products built using different materials and designed for different operating conditions. Yet most bearings are manufactured in ISO-standard sizes. That makes life easy for the fakers. They can buy batches of cheap products on the open market, then add counterfeit branding, identification marks and packaging. At a stroke, a low-cost commodity bearing looks to the untrained eye like a unit from SKF or another top-tier manufacturer.
Then there’s the nature of the supply chain. Vessels are mobile assets, and maintenance or repair activities may take place in any port, anywhere in the world. When operators need new parts, they usually need them urgently, so they can get equipment fixed without adversely affecting schedules. Replacement parts are often sourced on an ad-hoc basis from local suppliers. Those suppliers are not typically specialists with direct relationships with the big industrial manufacturers.
Together, those conditions provide counterfeiters with straightforward access to a large market, even though every other participant in the chain is making their purchases in good faith.
Does it matter?
It’s obvious why counterfeiting is problem for the major bearing suppliers. It is our revenues, and our reputations, that are under threat. But counterfeit bearings present real risks for users too. When you install a product of unknown origin on a piece of critical equipment, you have no way of knowing if that part is going to meet your requirements for safety, reliability or longevity.
Bearings are relatively small components, but when they fail, the least bad outcome is a period of unplanned downtime for the equipment involved. In worse cases, bearing failures can lead to costly damage to gears, shafts and other components. That’s not to mention the potential costs associated with delays and lost productivity.
Those problems are real. One way SKF discovered the prevalence of counterfeit bearings in the marine supply chain is because we were asked to investigate a number of unexpected in-service bearing failures. When we analysed the products involved, we found that they were fakes.
Leave the counterfeits onshore
How can you ensure the bearings you buy are the real thing? Unfortunately, that isn’t always easy. A bearing manufacturer will be able to tell a genuine item from counterfeit, but the tell-tale signs aren’t obvious to everyone. Nor is it always possible to rely on other giveaways, such as a suspiciously low price. One of the things that makes bearings so appealing for counterfeiters is the high margins they can achieve by selling to customers who think they are paying for quality.
Where customers have doubts about the provenance of a specific bearing, manufacturers will usually be happy to provide advice after looking at photographs of the suspect part. SKF even provides an app for customers to upload pictures and other details of parts for rapid authentication.
From ad-hoc to added value
The best approach, however, is to ensure that the parts you buy come from an approved source. Bearing manufacturer websites and customer services departments can point users to approved local suppliers anywhere in the world.
Another approach, one that is finding favour with a growing number of marine operators, is a move away from the ad-hoc purchase of critical components such as bearings. SKF, for example, has global supply agreements in place with several companies in the sector. These arrangements ensure vessel operators have access to the components they need, whenever and wherever they need them, either direct from SKF or via authorised distributors.
A direct relationship also allows marine operators to access a higher level of knowledge and support. SKF has decades of experience in rotating equipment performance, and we work with companies across industries to help them get the most out of their equipment. That can involve advices on bearing selection, installation and maintenance or root-cause failure analysis to solve persistent and trick reliability issues.
Increasingly, vessel operators are also taking advantage of our advanced remote condition-monitoring services, enabled by the latest machine learning technologies.
For vessel operators, the choice should be clear. Why risk compromising critical equipment with counterfeit technology, when the alternative could be genuine improvements in reliability, productivity and availability?