What’s in a Name?

| December 12, 2008

When speaking of replacement parts, original equipment manufacturers say the word “copycat” with a sneer – or a shudder. To Anthony DeFeo, it’s a compliment.

“We’re making a carbon copy of the product,” says DeFeo, vice president of DeFeo Manufacturing in Mount Kisco, N.Y., which makes replacement parts for Allison transmissions. Non-OEM parts can cost as little as 20 percent of the OEM price, DeFeo says, mainly because the OEM passes on to customers production costs and the cost of years of research and development – costs that the generic manufacturer doesn’t have.

Non-OEM parts are popular because the economy has forced owner-operators to be more cost-conscious, says Mark Williams, services manager for vehicle maintenance reporting standards at the Technology and Maintenance Council. Nevertheless, he likes to quote the old FRAM oil filter commercial: “Pay a little more now or pay a lot later.”

“The OEM part has been tested for stress, fatigue, torque, you name it, and has a solid warranty policy backing it up,” says Williams, who worked at Volvo for 22 years before joining TMC. “If you buy a knockoff part, you are running a risk.” If the part’s no good, Williams asks, who will help you “when you break down in Nevada?” Do you want an authorized OEM service bay working on your truck or “some shade-tree operation?”

Short-term savings, or long-term investment? Once the initial warranty coverage expires, that’s the choice owner-operators face when buying replacement parts – especially for crucial components such as engines, drivetrains and wheel systems. The businesses competing for the aftermarket dollar include the truck maker and its dealer chain; rival truck makers; the manufacturers that made the factory-installed part in the first place; and rival “will-fit” parts manufacturers who seek to duplicate those factory-installed parts. Even outright counterfeiters have elbowed into the game, illegally stamping brand names onto shoddy goods. In an increasingly crowded aftermarket, the savvy owner-operator weighs costs, warranties, reputations and risks and places his money only where he’s willing to place his trust as well.

At a pharmacy, DeFeo argues, owner-operators have no qualms about buying cheaper generic drugs the moment they become available. “Ours is a generic part, just like the generic drug.”

The difference, says Nick Richards – spokesman for GM Powertrain, which makes Allison transmissions – is that drug manufacturers, being strictly regulated, must share their formulas when the patents expire. In the parts industry, on the other hand, “there are no controls in place to assure the consumer that he is getting a comparable product,” Richards says.

“We have found lots of reasons not to go generic,” agrees Vicky Black of Dana Commercial Vehicle Systems, maker of heavy-duty Spicer axles, brakes and driveshafts. “We run test after test, and if you look at the total life cycle of that product, there’s really no comparison. With Dana, you get the full deal – service and technical expertise.”

HDA Parts Network, which includes more than 500 independent parts warehouses, spurns “no-name knockoff parts,” says Pat Biermann, HDA president. “We don’t do business with people like that. Sure, prudent owner-operators are interested in price, but eventually they have to ask themselves, how much would it cost me to replace this part four or five times?”

OEM and non-OEM parts may look alike, but differences in quality might not be apparent, says Tim Kraus, executive director of the Heavy Duty Manufacturers Association. Whether you buy OEM or non-OEM, you always want parts made to OEM specifications, he says. “And on critical parts, it’s probably not a good idea to go beyond the original manufacturer.”

When considering the cost of a part, owner-operators should compare not just initial price tags but lifetime “cost of ownership,” says Richard Andrews, president of Stemco, based in Longview, Texas, which makes wheel-end systems that are standard on Mack and Volvo. “How much will the part cost to maintain? How many times will it have to be replaced? How much downtime do you expect?”

Copycat products don’t meet Stemco standards of design and durability, “and where are they when service is required?” Andrews asks. Stemco has its own engineering test lab and active R&D program, as well as a service organization across North America that helps with installation, maintenance and repair, Andrews says.

Comments are closed.

OverdriveOnline.com strives to maintain an open forum for reader opinions. Click here to read our comment policy.