When it comes to running a power plant, it’s easy to take the little things for granted. Yet it’s the little things that often have the greatest impact on plant managers’ ability to deliver reliable service for their customers.

Take power, for instance. Plant managers are focused on bringing power to their customers. But are they thinking about the quality of energy powering their own plants? If a plant experiences downtime or a service delay due to power outages or disruptions, the consequences in terms of revenue loss and business impact could be dramatic.

This is an all-too-real possibility for many plants due to the proliferation of non-genuine, and even counterfeit, electrical products in the marketplace. These products—which can make their way into a plant in a number of ways that make them difficult to trace to the original product manufacturer—can wreak havoc on a plant’s power infrastructure, with significant fallout for the business.

This article examines the risks of buying with uncertainty, that is, procuring electrical products that cannot be traced to the original product manufacturer. It also looks at steps plant managers are taking to avoid this uncertainty and ensure that only genuine products are powering our infrastructure.

Buying with Uncertainty

It’s not uncommon for people to shop around, after all, everyone wants to get the best deal, but when cheap products are of unknown quality and cannot be traced to their point of origin, the risk associated with them is unacceptable. Power generators have too much to lose to allow questionable electrical products in a plant’s infrastructure (Figure 1). Safety and reliability could both be compromised.

1.The case for buying authentic. In the long run, counterfeit products can cost much more than authentic merchandise. Courtesy: Eaton
1. The case for buying authentic. In the long run, counterfeit products can cost much more than authentic merchandise. Courtesy: Eaton

Products purchased through channels not supported by the original manufacturer may be damaged or broken, or possibly refurbished by someone without proper knowledge or expertise in refurbishing them. In many cases, these products may be faulty in ways that aren’t immediately apparent, meaning damage only becomes known when these components are installed or implemented. This can lead to equipment that either doesn’t function, functions poorly, or, in the worst-case scenario, creates significant safety hazards for the user.

Contractors and distributors use various business practices to procure electrical equipment. Often, contractors will purchase from a distributor or dealer specializing in a specific type of product, some offering the product in question at a significantly lower price than is typical (that should be your first red flag). In some cases, the nature of distributor-manufacturer agreements makes it difficult to procure products from competing manufacturers, leading distributors to look to the “gray market” to procure equipment at a better rate.

The key takeaway is that, when procuring electrical products, plant managers are often in the dark about their original source, and this uncertainty can lead to risk.

The Rise of Counterfeits

Another major risk of buying with uncertainty is the risk of counterfeit products. When we think of counterfeiting, we often think of money or consumer goods such as handbags or jewelry. But counterfeiting is also a pervasive problem in the electrical industry and, as outlined above, it’s one that carries great risks for power plant managers.

Counterfeit electrical products, such as molded case circuit breakers, can enter the supply chain at any number of points. In some cases, they can be offered at prices substantially lower than that of authentic products, making them attractive for contractors or distributors. Because of the increasingly sophisticated nature of counterfeiters, these products can be virtually indistinguishable from the real thing (Figure 2). And, as the practice of combatting them evolves, so too does the process for creating them.

2.Real or fake? Counterfeiters do their best to disguise non-genuine products. In this image, the circuit breaker on the left is genuine while the one on the right is counterfeit. Courtesy: Eaton
2. Real or fake? Counterfeiters do their best to disguise non-genuine products. In this image, the circuit breaker on the left is genuine while the one on the right is counterfeit. Courtesy: Eaton

The counterfeiting of electrical products isn’t something that can be solved by one company or person alone; instead, it requires a coordinated effort between global authorities, manufacturers, and users to stem the tide. As law enforcement officials endeavor to identify and stop counterfeiters, manufacturers have created tools to help end users identify and report potential counterfeit products to the proper authorities.

At Eaton, for example, we’ve developed an authentication tool, conveniently called our Molded Case Circuit Breaker (MCCB) Authentication tool, which is accessible via our PowerEdge mobile app. This easy-to-use tool was created to give users or purchasers a simple way to detect possible counterfeit circuit breakers, up to 400 amperes. All users have to do is scan the serial number bar code to immediately verify the product authenticity, access related technical information, or locate an authorized manufacturer’s representative to purchase genuine products.

This is just one example of the tools the industry is making available to help combat counterfeiting as more companies and users are waking up to the risks and prevalence of counterfeit products. Fortunately, by taking the right steps, plant managers can take the risk out of buying and ensure they are getting only genuine, authentic products to keep their facilities running reliably.

How to Buy Authentic

To avoid the unknown and mitigate the risk of procuring faulty products, plant managers should take the following steps.

Do Your Due Diligence. When working with a contractor or distributor, it’s critical to know where products were procured and to seek evidence that products have been purchased from the manufacturer’s authorized distributors or resellers. Traceability to the original manufacturer through the supply chain is widely supported by manufacturers, industry, and regulatory agencies alike. Procurement should be cautious of bargains or low-cost alternatives. Compare the price of products to similar products at a different retailer. If the price seems too good to be true, it likely is.

Observe, Evaluate, and Verify. As mentioned, to the untrained eye, it can be difficult to differentiate between authentic products and lookalikes. Plant managers need to ensure that the receiving process is robust and thorough.

Receiving teams should be leery of poor-quality labels, legacy branding, old or missing date codes, and extraneous markings or labeling that was not applied by the original manufacturers. The original manufacturers will use branded packaging on nearly all component products for easier identification.

Report to Manufacturers and Authorities. If you find evidence of a non-genuine product, take the proper steps to ensure the suspect material is removed from the supply chain. Quarantine the suspect or potentially counterfeit product and seek assistance from the original manufacturer.

The timely reporting of suspect material may improve the ability of the manufacturer to find similar products and remove them from the marketplace to protect users. When reporting potentially dangerous products, make sure to disclose the product vendor’s name, business name, address, domain name, and any other identifiers.

Tom Grace is anti-counterfeiting and brand protection manager for the Americas Electrical sector with Eaton.