Beware polymer bushings copy-cats
30 August 2023

Ten years ago, a large container vessel that on a typical voyage sails from Japan to Singapore, South Africa and Argentina and through to Brazil could not be steered.

It could not move in a straight direction and turned in a circle over the open ocean.

It was a ship owner and crew’s worst nightmare, as the Panama-registered vessel, with a dead weight of almost 40,000t, followed its own path.

The container vessel was eventually towed to the nearest port and various causes were investigated, including the metre-diameter rudder bushing, which was found to be at fault.

The rudder bushing had been replaced three months previously and, despite the specification being for Vesconite, a dimensionally-stable polymer suitable for underwater applications, a moisture-absorbing nylon rudder bushing was installed.

The third-party-supplied nylon bushing swelled and eventually seized to the shaft, preventing the rudder from executing the necessary action to allow the ship to continue to its destination.

Towing, dry dock and consulting engineer fees, including a call-out from Vesconite Bearings to the port, resulted in significant costs well over what a bonafide Vesconite rudder bushing would have cost.

The lesson: there is no doubt that piracy and counterfeiting are significant issues globally, even among items that one commonly does not expect to be counterfeited. This can have a costly effect on businesses that use them either knowingly or unwittingly.

The prevalence of counterfeiting

The International Chamber of Commerce in 2008 found that the sum of global counterfeit goods came to USD650-billion each year and projected that the value of counterfeit and pirated goods could total USD1.77-trillion in 2015. It is estimated that pirated and counterfeit goods have cost 2.5 million jobs globally.

Other figures that have been quoted include those provided in a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) press release, which stated that up to USD250-billion and 750,000 jobs could be the cost to the US economy of counterfeit and pirated goods, and those quoted by the German Business Action Group against Product and Trademark Counterfeiting, which has argued that there would be 70,000 additional jobs in Germany if brand and product piracy were eliminated.

Apparel, electronics, toys, medication, food, wine, cosmetics and cigarettes are some of the products that have been worst affected by piracy and counterfeiting, and have been linked to the drug trade, money laundering and terrorism. Other sectors have also not been spared, although their counterfeiting may not be as extensive.

As a result, buyers of even the most innocuous products, such as polymer bushings, might want to also think about piracy and counterfeiting.

The prevalence of polymer bearing and bushing counterfeiting

To Vesconite Bearings’ knowledge, there have been no consolidated studies into polymer bearing and bushing counterfeiting. The company mainly has evidence from concerned would-be clients as well as anecdotal evidence from others on the occurrence of this activity in both critical and non-critical applications.

What is more clear is the evidence of bearing and bushing counterfeiting and polymer counterfeiting, as separate counterfeiting types, rather than on copy-cat polymer bearing and bushings specifically.

These two industries may be especially prone to counterfeiting since bearing and bushing companies as well as polymer companies:

  • often have strong brand power, developed by producing quality products;
  • can have considerable global logistic, distribution and supplier networks that may be difficult to police;
  • can have high prices as a result of considerable raw material, engineering development and technology inputs — and these prices may act as an incentive for counterfeiters and purchasers of counterfeit goods who seek to reduce the cost of purchases; and
  • may sell into developing countries in which the risk of discovery and prosecution is low and the penalties if caught are not prohibitive.

In the bearing and bushing sphere, various companies are taking an active stance against the sale of counterfeit items. Some companies offer authentication apps and invite users to email photos of suspected counterfeit products to them. Some have embarked on legal proceedings against counterfeit dealers and many have been active in the press denouncing those who use their company brand without permission, giving users the impression that they are buying original guaranteed parts.

There is also an international campaign to encourage awareness of the prevalence of counterfeit bearings that is supported by some large bearing manufacturers.

Engineered polymers, meanwhile, are also being threatened by counterfeiters intent on using a well-established brand name to sell an inferior product, as a recent high-profile case that resulted in automotive recalls attests.

Manufacturers have responded by introducing various overt and covert methods to identify their products.

Vesconite Bearings, for instance, includes identifying labelled stickers on its full-length rods, hollow bars and plates, with a green sticker appearing on its Vesconite polymer and a blue one appearing on its Vesconite Hilube polymer. It also has printing over stretches of the product, which gives the polymer name, batch number and measurements.

In addition, Vesconite Bearings issues material certificates that accompany its material and these should be obtainable even where its polymers are being bought through a third party.

As a first step though, Vesconite Bearings encourages users to know the product and conduct their visual inspection of the product. It also suggests some ways of identifying different polymers.

Advice for buyers

There are various measures that buyers can take to ensure that they have a genuine polymer bushing, says Vesconite Bearings.

Engage with the manufacturer

Many manufacturers of polymers sell their products directly to the public. Products sold in this way are guaranteed to be the original specified material.

Manufacturers that use third parties to sell their polymers will have a database of these suppliers. If a user or buyer suspects that their supplier may not be a legitimate source of verified products, the original manufacturer can be contacted to verify that the supplier is known.

Manufacturers, whether they sell directly to the public or through third parties, should be able to supply a conformance or material certificate. This is a warranty that the material being purchased is what is stated on the certificate, and can provide peace of mind for the user.

Know your polymers

Users should carry out a visual inspection to ascertain that the product they are purchasing or have purchased is the correct one. A manufacturer can describe the visual characteristics of the polymer and, if that polymer does not conform to this, chances are that it is not the polymer that was specified.

Even a visual inspection is not enough to ensure that the polymer that is being used is what it claims to be though, as some products are marketed by unscrupulous polymer dealers who match polymer colours to persuade users of a particular polymer’s authenticity.

A small piece of the polymer can, however, be burnt if there is some doubt of the authenticity. Nylon will smell like burnt hair, while polypropylene and polyethylene smell like candle wax or paraffin, for instance.

The material can also be exposed to battery acid. Polytetrafluoroethylene and polyethylene will not be affected, but acidic fumes may be released from nylon, although different fillers may increase the resistance of nylon to acid.

Hardness is also a way to determine which polymer you are dealing with, with most nylons, for instance, becoming softer when they are immersed in water or exposed to moisture.

Be aware of costs

If the price is considerably lower than you would expect, chances are that a counterfeiter may have replaced the specified material with an inferior polymer. It would be best to know the quoted price of a polymer is if obtained from the original manufacturer.

The dangers of counterfeit products

Brand collateral

Counterfeiters often prey on companies that have genuine brand power and are trusted among buyers. Since buyers typically believe that their purchase is a genuine product, they can become disillusioned with a brand if the copycat version does not perform as well as the manufacturer’s brand. This happens in the case of bearings and bushings that may be poor replicas of the original ones. This also happens in the case of imitation polymers, which may not have the desired characteristics of the specified required polymer and may, for instance, degrade when exposed to ultraviolet light, offer limited resistance to solvents and chemicals, or relax and weaken under long-term loading.

Cost of doing business

If polymer bushings and bearings fail catastrophically or wear prematurely, expensive production downtime or equipment breakdown can result. This can increase the cost of doing business and could, ultimately, result in company closures if the costs related to the failure push operating or capital expenditure costs beyond acceptable levels.

For the manufacturer of the copied parts or polymers, the costs to protect and authenticate genuine parts may have to increase too, with increasingly sophisticated measures having to be employed.

Economic damage

The cost to manufacturing host countries can be considerable. Many associations and companies involved in combatting counterfeiting quote the number of jobs that might be added to the economy if counterfeiting was stopped, the cost of doing business was decreased and the profitability of doing business was increased.

In addition, tax losses can result from undeclared manufacturing, and policing costs can increase as governments are expected to enforce intellectual property rights and prosecute those that infringe on them.

Critical applications

Some applications in which polymer bushings are being used are regarded as critical and there may be health and safety implications if the bushings fail.

The outlook for counterfeiting

It seems that counterfeiting is growing with the global economy despite moves by manufacturers and host and supplied nations to stop the flow of these illicit goods.

Both manufacturers and countries continue to step up their responses to counterfeiting, aware of the potential effects of this trade.

Customers, in turn, need to also become aware of the dangers of counterfeiting and buyers especially should be knowledgeable about the dangers of purchasing cheaper copy-cat products that may not meet the specifications of the engineering team.

Buyers can be under considerable pressure to meet performance targets, but, as in the example of the counterfeit rudder bushing, they should ensure that those they report to are aware that purchasing costs can only be brought down by a certain percentage and that the purchasing of counterfeit goods that do not meet specifications should be avoided.

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