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Industrial Knockoffs

Have you ever been to Chinatown in New York City? Canal Street and the area surrounding it is THE place to go for counterfeit fashion designer bags. What is the harm in getting a $1,000 bag for $40? The only people that get hurt are the big bloated fashion companies with their big bloated profits and big bloated egos, right?

The viewpoint of "sticking it to the (fashion) man" is not uncommon, and many people don’t care that Prada or another label has lost a few million. After all, it is a bag, and no one is going to get hurt if a poorly made stitch comes undone, right?

But what about counterfeit industrial parts such as circuit breakers, valves, or valve actuators? Are these as harmless as a fake designer bag? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Industrial parts often times are designed to contain and control immense amounts of energy. If the parts are not well designed and well made, the energy can be released in a devastating way that can damage property, or worse, life.

Counterfeiters don't worry about quality; they just want to make a quick buck and not get caught. Today, they have become adept at distributing products that can't be traced back to them, relieving them of any liability when a part does fail.

My company, Schneider Electric, is being counterfeited on a daily basis. We have found counterfeits of our Square D circuit breakers, contactors, pressure switches, and other products. The danger can be sobering.

Some of the counterfeit circuit breakers Schneider Electric has found are labeled for 10,000 amps, but have failed as low at 3,000 Amps. The company even found one of our European circuit breakers with just a wire soldered between the terminals. Good luck on getting that to trip. The end result of these low-quality products is an increased fire risk, and risk of injury or death.

Is this limited to just Schneider Electric and their Square D product lines? No. Eaton, Siemens, and all other electrical product manufacturers with decent market share are being affected. The same with valve, actuator, and other manufacturers. “Google” counterfeiting and you will find a lot of information.

Worldwide, counterfeiting of all products is estimated at 6 percent of global trade with an estimated value of $350 billion. In 2007 alone, U.S. Customs officials confiscated $16 million in counterfeit electrical products (video).

What can you do to protect yourself?

  • Buy products only from reputable suppliers. Since many of the counterfeiters use the Internet to deliver their products, be careful when using that avenue. All of the major electrical suppliers have distributor finders on their Websites. For other manufacturers, call them directly and find out who the authorized supplier is.
  • Be careful of "too good to be true" deals. Most counterfeiters will entice you with low cost. If it appears too good to be true, chances are it is.
  • Insist on having a supplier provide a “Chain of Commerce,” which will allow you to find the point of manufacture. All you have to do is prove where you bought the part from, usually by keeping a packing list and purchase order paperwork. This provision should be added to project specifications but also as a way to ensure your local electrician does not use a part that was already in his truck.
  • If you suspect a counterfeit, do not just toss it and replace it. Contact the manufacturer of the legitimate version of the part so that company can confirm the status of your part and then pursue the counterfeiter.

One final thought: Who do you think profits from this type of counterfeiting? Some may think that these are “Mom and Pop” shops in poor countries that are just trying to make enough money to feed their kids. The truth is much more insidious.

One facility that Schneider Electric raided was geared up to produce 3 million counterfeit Square D QO circuit breakers annually. Who would have the ability to run such a large-scale operation? If your answer is organized crime, you are correct. But, it gets worse, the 1993 World Trade Center bombing was financed through the sale of counterfeit textiles (pdf).

So, when you think about it, even buying that knockoff purse causes harm to more than just the manufacturer.

Posted by Grant Van Hemert, P.E., Schneider Electric Water Wastewater Competency Center on Aug 02, 2010