The Danger Of Fake Ball Bearings

Karl Denninger posted about fake ball bearings recently.  The thing is that while he writing in very hyperbolic language, he’s not exaggerating very much.

CT is ball bearing country.  While the plants are hidden and not what you think of for important manufacturing, the state still makes a lot of ball. So fakes are a big deal here.

One Tuesday morning last April, a blonde woman from Sweden stood out from the crowd, leading nine Kenyan officers to a storefront she believed was selling counterfeit goods. But they weren’t after knock-off handbags, watches or sunglasses. The shop specialized in a far less sexy — and ultimately more dangerous — fake product: ball bearings.

Overseeing the raid was Tina Aastroem, head of brand protection for SKF AB, a Swedish maker of bearings. Aastroem had cased the store six months earlier, concluding that many SKF products there, as well as those of rival manufacturers FAG and Timken Co., were fake. In the raid, her team spent hours sorting through boxes stacked from floor to ceiling–fueled by chicken ordered from the local KFC–and found $100,000 of counterfeit bearings for cars and other vehicles.

“It was about three tons that had to be inspected, lifted, packed and carried,” Aastroem said. “You don’t have to go to the gym to work out if you do this kind of work.”

Dangerous, Costly

Everything from shoe polish to medication to car parts is pirated. Estimates of the scale of the problem range from $461 billion — 2.5 percent of global trade — the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development says, to some $1.8 trillion, according to calculations last year by the International Chamber of Commerce. And while makers of luxury goods — among the most prominent counterfeited products — lose profit from the trade, there’s little risk to consumers. In the case of more mundane stuff like bearings, forgeries can be dangerous as well as costly.

“Many people believe piracy is limited to handbags and other similar products, but the more serious issue is industrial companies,” said Ann-Charlotte Soederlund, co-founder of the Global Anti-Counterfeiting Network, an umbrella organization of fake-fighters around the world. “The effects can be immensely larger than the consequence of a fake handbag.”

Formula 1

Finnish Formula 1 driver Mika Haakkinen pulled out of the 1998 San Marino Grand Prix when his gearbox failed due to fake bearings. Knock-off building materials have been shown to catch fire. Counterfeit electronics have caused military equipment to fail. And SKF says a sham bearing in a swimming pool pump sparked a fire that burnt a house to the ground.

“The question is not what is being counterfeited but what isn’t,” said Karl Lallerstedt, program director of Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, a network of law enforcement agencies.

Sandvik AB, a Swedish manufacturer of mining equipment and steel products, hires contractors to scour websites and orders suspicious products to test them in Sweden. Schneider Electric SE, a producer of power equipment, has developed bar codes and labels that can be checked with ultraviolet light to detect counterfeits. Vallourec SA, a French maker of pipes for the oil and gas industry, is stepping up its fight against fakes as it has detected forged certificates that are meant to prove the authenticity of its products.

Dishwashers, Nukes

“The number of reported falsified certificates has increased in recent years,” said Anais Eiden, Vallourec’s senior legal manager for intellectual property. “Counterfeiting is a risk and we act to mitigate it.”

Bearings from SKF, the world’s No.1 manufacturer of the steel balls, are used in everything from dishwashers to nuclear power plants to make parts spin more freely and reduce friction. Forgeries of its products typically originate in China, often from factories where legitimate competitors make their products, Aastroem said.

The balls and races in a bearing require incredibly close tolerances to take the loads that the bearing is expected to take for the life of the bearing.  When I interviewed at a bearing plant years ago, the tolerances on the drawings were measured in millionths. Admittedly these were high performance aircraft engine bearings with carbide coated balls, but the that was the allowance for how far the races could be out of round. To achieve that, the races have to be very carefully ground with strict control of the grinding processes to adjust for things like thermal expansion.  How that is done is usually proprietary for each bearing manufacturer.

A Chinese made fake more than likely won’t have the those strict controls and finely ground races.  The balls are far easier to achieve true precision than the races are.  So a fake bearing will fail under load far more quickly than a real bearing would.  Which means that that at best bearing failures would play havoc with scheduled maintenance and at worst cause catastrophic failure of the machine with the possibility of damage, injuries or deaths, or even failures of entire plants due to emergency process shutdowns.  That’s why the fakes are a big deal for a bearing company, especially as there may be liability issues involved.

Those fake bearings may seem like a good deal, but as replacement, they should never be installed.  The original designer designed the bearings for a load and a life expectancy with a margin of failure based on the curves provided by the bearing manufacturer that the designer used.  Those curves are the result of extensive testing on bearing to get the best average expected life.  A fake replacement has very different set of characteristics which the designer never accounted for.  Even though it seems to work at first, the probability is that it will give you nothing but grief.  Typically the largest cost of a bearing replacement isn’t the cost of the bearing itself, but the need for downtime, the maintenance labor costs for dismantling the machine and the cost of the lost production.  A cheap bearing gets very expensive if you have to deal with those costs more frequently than you should.


  1. Dr. Mauser · November 25, 2016

    I remember seeing a demo video of a chinese fake and a german ball bearing, and the difference in performance was obvious.


    • jccarlton · November 25, 2016

      I saw that video too. The difference was obvious even when the bearings were free. Now put the bearings under load at 3k rpm for 10,000 hours if the Chinese bearing makes it, which I doubt.


      • Dr. Mauser · November 25, 2016

        Chinese engineers seem to be Cargo Cult mechanics. They think if it looks like the original, it’s just as good.


      • jccarlton · November 25, 2016

        I think that the problem may be that the Chinese engineers don’t get the education that got pounded into me in both high school and college that things break, don’t screw up. Complete with the examples and sometimes video or movies. I think I’ve seen the “Gertie” movie about a couple of hundred times. What I can’t understand is why not? It’s not as if China isn’t creating such wonderful examples. How many engineering disasters do they need?


      • Dr. Mauser · November 25, 2016

        Life is cheap, they’re not legally liable for failures, and it’s get in, get your cash, and get out, fuck the customers. Or any combination of the above in Chinese culture. There’s nothing about providing a service, getting repeat customers, or a culture of quality.


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