March 2013 Dry Coal International
Dirty deeds in the conveyor belt industry?
Not only famous fashion brands are confronted with imitation and fake, it is also happening more and more in the conveyor belt industry, where names of traditionally strong quality brands are misused to sell inferior products.
Most of us have long been aware of the increasing trade in counterfeit goods. Such activities are usually associated with famous ‘designer’ brand names within the fashion industry and also illegal duplications within the world of music and film. Many consumer protection organizations are reporting a huge increase in complaints fuelled by the economic crisis with the food industry being particularly hard hit. But counterfeiting and ‘misrepresentation’ is even affecting the normally unglamorous and unexciting world of conveyor belt manufacturing. Because of the potentially serious consequences to many of our readers we decided to take a closer look by talking to senior managers at one of the most famous brand names of them all, Netherlandsbased Dunlop Conveyor Belting. “Conveyor belt manufacturing has always been a highly competitive industry and that can only be a good thing for the end-users,” explained general sales manager Les Williams. “But what isn’t a good thing for users of conveyor belts is that we are seeing a growing trend where lower quality belts, often of very dubious origin, are being bought by some unscrupulous traders and distributors and then sold on as being manufactured by one of the relatively small number of ‘big name’ brands. I can’t speak for others but we are certainly victims of this practice; and the problem is growing.”
WHAT IS HAPPENING?
So, what is actually happening? Well it appears that the major manufacturers are unwitting victims of these dirty deeds. No evidence has yet been found which points to a manufacturer falsely branding its products. In other words, there is no sign of actual counterfeiting. What does seem evident, however, is that large scale ‘dumping’ of belting, primarily from Asia is now taking place on an unprecedented scale. And with the trading and fitting of conveyor belts to end users worth many millions each year, it is hardly surprising to find some who are willing to deceive in order to earn bigger profits.
Rather than buy direct from the manufacturer, a large proportion of belts are purchased by end-users from traders as well as from vulcanizing companies and distributors who supply and fit the belts. This is a long-standing practice and according to Dunlop, the majority of traders and distributors operate perfectly honestly. However, Dunlop maintains that it is finding more and more cases where its customers believe they have actually been supplied with genuine Dunlop belts but which in reality have actually been manufactured elsewhere and are invariably of inferior quality or below the required international standards. End-users are increasingly insisting that their belts should be made in Europe rather than, say, in Asia. However, even this approach can be prone to malpractice with belts imported into Europe, housed in a warehouse and then re-shipped to customers using certificates that state the country of origin as being European.
Dunlop recently discovered that it has become a victim of another illegal practice that virtually amounts to identity theft.
An organization in India (as yet unidentified) has created a website using the Dunlop Conveyor Belting name and has even copied text extracts from Dunlop’s own website to create the illusion that it is Dunlop’s official Indian operation. This enables it to attract enquiries from would-be Dunlop customers who innocently believe that they are buying genuine Dunlop quality at lower prices. “It is very difficult to deal with this kind of fraudulent practice” explains Williams. “Even if you manage to have one website closed down they will quickly create another. Realistically, all we can do is to continually confirm to the market that genuine Dunlop rubber multi-ply belts are only made here in Holland. It is a never-ending battle.”
Not only are such practices illegal, they also have very serious consequences not just for the big name manufacturers but also for their customers and authorised distributors. Sales and marketing director Andries Smilda has worked in the industry for more than 20 years and he believes that the problem has a very widespread impact. “Dunlop has established a worldwide reputation over many generations for producing conveyor belts of the highest quality and naturally that is of enormous importance to us,” said Smilda. “If our customers buy belts of inferior quality in the mistaken belief that they are using Dunlop then that will not only result in lost sales but also damage our good name and the good name of our authorized distributors, agents and service partners. Using inferior quality belts also puts our customer’s operational efficiency at risk.”
It has long been standard practice for Dunlop to carry out exhaustive laboratory tests to measure performance qualities and conformity to recognized international industry standards. These tests are not only performed on the company’s own belts but also those of its competitors. “We have to know precisely what we are competing against so that we can maintain quality and continue to develop even better products. We must also enable our salespeople and distributors to prove the superiority of our products,” explained Smilda. “You would be amazed at the differences between our belts and those of other manufacturers. The difference in vital qualities such as resistance to abrasion or heat can easily be up to 50% or more.
Conveyors can carry tonnes of material at quite fast speeds. If these belts fail or if they are not sufficiently resistance to fire for example then the results can potentially be very dangerous.” Several examples were pointed out by the Dunlop technicians including one where a unique specification of Dunlop belt (UsFlex) had more than three times greater rip and tear resistance compared to what they referred to as ‘cheap imitations’. One of the problems seems to lie with the fact that, at first glance, industrial conveyor belts all look very similar — big long lengths of thick black rubber! According to Smilda, to the untrained eye it is almost impossible to tell just by looking at the belt. “The end user who thinks he has bought a quality belt at a cheap price can often face paying a heavy cost in the longer term because the belts do not last so long and/or they incur lost production and higher maintenance costs.”
Does the answer lie with extra legislation of some kind? The Dunlop management certainly do not think so. They argue that the law in most countries, especially within Europe, provides sufficient recourse if malpractice can be proved. Somewhat surprisingly, they lay much of the responsibility on the doorstep of manufacturers including themselves. Research and development director Dr Michiel Eijpe says that permanent branding during the production process has not always been consistent. “I think that perhaps we [Dunlop] have been a little complacent in the past but times have obviously changed. During the past few months we have introduced new branding methods using coloured rubber compound vulcanized into the belt that describes the belt type and also includes the wording “Made in Holland”. We also place much more emphasis on the use of branded packaging, again making the fact that the belts have been made in Holland very visible”.
Dunlop’s advice to all who buy conveyor belts, regardless of supplier, is never assume that the belt being delivered is precisely what was ordered. It urges caution and recommends that unless the belt has been delivered directly from the manufacturer then a few basic checks should be carried out before fitting. “If the original manufacturer’s packaging has been used then that is a good sign but unless it is a full sized roll then there may not be any packaging,” explained Les Williams. “The most important check is to inspect the top and bottom surfaces of the belt to see if the manufacturer’s branding can be seen.” According to Dunlop, the most important message is that if the buyer is at all suspicious then they should contact the original manufacturer. “They will usually know if they have supplied a particular specification of belt to a trader or distributor. In our case, we can also either test a sample for authenticity and compliance or, wherever practical, send an expert to the site.” In other words, ‘buyer beware!’