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'Fake bearings are out to dupe the wind industry'

OPINION | Counterfeit bearings are being installed in wind turbines with serious consequences for both safety and profits – so the sector must be vigilant, writes Philipp Schmid

Counterfeiting is all around us – whether it’s a knock-off pair of Ugg boots, fake Chanel handbag or bogus Rolex watch.

In these cases, counterfeiting causes harm to brand owners by eroding sales. The same is true in the engineering sector – but it also has far more serious implications. If a fake bearing is fitted into industrial machinery like a wind turbine, its subsequent failure can have a knock-on effect – damaging the shaft, for instance, and causing prolonged, expensive downtime. In addition, replacing components is costly due to the need for cranes and other expensive equipment when an uptower replacement is not possible.

The mark of authenticity

Counterfeit bearings are easy to unknowingly purchase, particularly as they are well marketed on the internet. Customers choose brand name products because they want brand name technology, quality, service and support. Indeed, they should get this. However, counterfeiters typically buy cheap, unbranded products and mark them with the logos of well-known manufacturers at small, localized workshops. Spotting a fake bearing is not easy: the product will appear genuine, including the lookalike packaging and seemingly reputable brand markings.

The fact that bearings are made to ISO standards – and have identical specifications such as width, diameter and bore – makes them even harder to detect. While fake consumer goods are also dead ringers for the original items, their low price is usually a giveaway. However, counterfeit bearings are sold at a similar price to the genuine article, earning the counterfeiter a tidy profit at the unwitting customer’s cost.

"Counterfeit bearings are sold at a similar price to the genuine article."

In the majority of cases counterfeit bearings are bought as replacements. However there have also been cases where OEMs have unsuspectingly bought counterfeits to install into new machinery.

Some industrial applications will suffer more than others when things go wrong – and it could be argued that wind farm operators would suffer more than most: cost of maintenance and repair have a significant impact on wind farm profitability – and this is without factoring in failures from counterfeit products. To operate safely, wind turbines rely on fully functional bearings. If these are not robust and reliable, there is far more chance of a breakdown – and the need to replace them, at huge cost.

While there are no official statistics on the number of counterfeit bearings installed in wind turbines, the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) estimates that 5% of all imported goods into the EU are counterfeit – highlighting the scale of the problem. The risk to wind farm operators is real – and the potential damage too great to ignore.

Fighting fakes

However, bearings suppliers are beginning to make headway in the fight against fake products.

On 27 June 2018, for instance, SKF invited the press to witness the public destruction of around 30 tonnes of counterfeit bearings — which had previously been seized in several raids by European authorities. Prior to this the company destroyed 15 tonnes of fake bearings that had a market value of around €1m. Other bearings suppliers have carried out similar operations.

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This latest event highlighted some of the problems caused by counterfeiting: as well as the potential harm that counterfeit products can cause — through their inability to match the performance of the products they are mimicking — there is the huge cost of investigating these crimes and destroying the illegal products.

Leading manufacturers like SKF are actively taking legal action towards the supply chain. Last year for example, several raids on counterfeit bearings operations were carried out all over the world, by SKF in cooperation with local law enforcement. In one instance for example, US customs border officials seized a large fake bearing that was on its way from China to Brazil.

Spotting the signals

Those who buy bearings, including wind farm operators, must be vigilant about educating themselves on identifying fake products, to spot the signals of illegal behaviour.

Forward planning is also a key consideration: keeping a supply of spare parts – sourced from these same dealers – means there is no need to make snap decisions when buying a replacement product. In situations like this, short lead times can be another indicator: if your regular shipping company cannot deliver within the required timeframe, it is tempting to try a new dealer – but if they promise an absurdly short delivery time, alarm bells should start to ring.

Counterfeiters can also work in peculiar ways, which can be a red flag to the wary buyer. For instance, they may provide ‘authenticity’ certificates – which are as fake as the products themselves. Authentic component suppliers will not usually supply this type of documentation – so brandishing a certificate should be considered a warning sign.

Finally, it makes sense to go back to genuine bearings suppliers – who will know their own products. Many will offer to identify – from a photograph – whether a bearing is genuine or not. The World Bearing Association (WBA) – an alliance of the leading manufacturers – is specifically geared up to fight against fake bearings (its website is at www.stopfakebearings.com). In addition to these guidelines, its main piece of advice is this: ‘Don’t try to identify fake bearings on your own.’

There may be many reasons for a buyer ending up with a fake bearing, ranging from cost pressures to a lack of forward planning. Operators should remain vigilant when sourcing bearings, in order to avoid the potential consequences of installing counterfeit products into a multi-million-dollar wind turbine.

SKF offers a free smartphone app called SKF Authenticate, which will verify the authenticity of SKF products.

Philipp Schmid is group marketing manager for wind and metals at bearings supplier SKF.

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