By Mike Santora
2016 saw sustained strength within the counterfeit bearings market. While global initiatives by companies like SKF and groups like the World Bearing Association have helped slow the bleeding, experts say there is still much to be done. In this second part of our two part story, we continue our interview with SKF’s Director Group Brand Protection, Tina Astrom. In addition, SKF Press and Media Relations Director, Theo Kjellberg weighs in as well.
Bearing Tips: Can you tell us about the preparation process for a raid?
Astrom: It usually starts with a customer contacting us with some sort of complaint, a premature failure, or something of that nature. We find out where they bought it and then we do a test purchase and collect some information. We then hand it over to the police. From the customer complaint until police involvement, it’s usually two weeks maximum. At that point it’s the police, of course, who decide whether or not we’re going to take action.
The specifics of those decisions vary considerably from country to country. In some countries, Kenya for instance, they were ready to do it the same day. In other countries, it could take a couple of months. In the US, I would say the process takes approximately a month or so.
Theo Kjellberg: I guess that’s what the difference in proactivity is. We talked about the police in Kenya and China being very, very proactive, for example. In different countries, the police have different prioritization, different resources. Whether or not this is on the top of their list of actions, that’s when you see a deeper relationship with the police.
Astrom: Whenever we work with a police force that has a department that is dedicated to these type of activities, it goes much quicker. It’s quicker because they have the expertise. They have the knowledge, they have the competence to know exactly what to do.There are no such dedicated police units in the US.
BT: Are you seeing any specific types of bearings more frequently during your seizures? What bearing types should our readers pay special attention to when ordering?
Astrom: Usually, I say that it’s all the product types; everything is equally affected. “Mass produced” smaller-sized, Deep Groove Ball Bearings are counterfeits distributors often keep in stock. Large sized bearings are different in that distributors often do not carry stock of such bearings which means there are some delivery time issues. If the customer doesn’t want to wait, he finds it elsewhere… There is always someone out there who is ready to supply. For instance, we raided a company quite recently in Spain that was specializing in large size bearings. But they didn’t carry any stock. That sent up some red flags. Spanish police worked for a long time trying to detect their stock. Eventually, it was Spanish customs who helped out.
After the whole mess was sorted out we learned how the company operated. Other companies placed orders with them because they specialized in large sized bearings, and it was only when an actual order was placed that this Spanish company went to China for the bearing. At that point they would have it delivered by way of Korea to Spain, which meant that they offered a delivery time of less than one week. And again, we’re talking about bearings typically 50, 100, 200 kilos in size. The scale is obviously concerning because as a general rule of thumb, large bearings mean large machines, and if they fail, it means large problems.
BT: We often hear that counterfeiters are getting smarter every day. Have you noticed an increase in counterfeiting sophistication? What developments are you seeing in terms of the counterfeiting of your bearings?
Astrom: Well, counterfeiters don’t really do any R&D on the bearings themselves. All of their R&D goes into making the packaging of the bearing look as closely as possible to the genuine article. They are quite good at this and that is dangerous.
I had a case just two days ago with a bearing that failed catastrophically. This was in Germany. The bearing that the customer had bought was a type that is specifically designed for vibrating applications. The bearing uses a special technique to do this. It was counterfeit.
Of course, the only similarity between the genuine bearing and the counterfeit was that it fit in the hole. No other similarity whatsoever. I have seen counterfeit bearings which are supposed to have a brass cage, and in reality they have a steel cage that is painted with gold color to make it look like brass.
I should definitely point out that what we’re seeing more and more are companies producing some sort of a machinery with parts from China. It could be, for instance, that they buy the electric motors that fit into a piece of machinery. We have had a number of cases where the electric motors have been fitted with counterfeit bearings.
Consequently, what you start seeing is that these companies have to pay more and more for guarantees. It takes some time before someone starts investigating and we find out about a large number of undetected cases.
BT: What are some of the ways consumers can protect themselves from counterfeit bearings?
Kjellberg: One of the things we’re working on is giving people different opportunities and channels to contact us quickly if they think that the bearing in their electrical motor or pump is counterfeit. There’s two ways. The first is just a general email address, genuine@SKF.com, where people can get a response from us confirming authenticity usually within a few hours. The other is through an app which we’ve developed on the SKF app store, which is called Authenticate. Users just download it on their smartphone, take a picture of a bearing and it automatically sends it in to our specialist who can again confirm authenticity.
Astrom: Yes, the most important thing is that customers are careful where they are buying their product. From SKF’s side, we recommend SKF authorized distributors. There is also a list of who is authorized and who is not authorized on SKF.com. It’s very easy to find. I recommend customers use the site and do not trust certificates. When someone says, “Oh, they must be genuine because there was a certificate,” I’m usually thinking “they’re probably counterfeit.” Of course, that’s not always true, but certificates are just a piece of paper; anyone can counterfeit a piece of paper.
BT: Are there any new initiatives planned for 2017?
Astrom: We plan to continue spreading our activities into a new geographical market. In places like the US for example, we plan to continue encouraging customers to be more alert than they are today. Unfortunately, I would say that many customers in the western world, including US, think that this will not happen to them. It can. It can definitely happen to them. They have to be much more cautious. It’s a matter of reaching out to customers in different creative ways. We will do that more and more in 2017.