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I have had a number of cyclists contact me with issues around NTN and SKF bearings being fitted at bike shops and failing within a fairly short period of time. A number of these cyclists have sent me the bearings back to look at and I have found a large number of bearings to be counterfeit or B grade.
These bearings are units that have been made by a third party and then subsequently badged with a named brand eg SKF, NTN, FAG.
NTN and SKF both use protective measures on some of their bearings to try and eliminate counterfeiting. They both have phone apps (SKF Authenticate and NTN Authentibear) that can be used to verify the integrity of the supply chain. Unfortunately, it is very easy to defeat these mechanisms as they consist of a QR code and a series of numbers. Copying this data and a hologram circumvents this protection. To add to the confusion, it should also be pointed out that a lot of genuine products from SKF/NTN and others do not have the up to date authentication markings.
The quality of the bearing counterfeiting is extremely good, it is virtually impossible to tell the difference between the original and the fake. The packaging is virtually identical and the bearing markings on the fake often look to be better than the original!
The only real downfall is in the materials, the fake bearings tend to be softer than the originals and they are dimensionally not as accurate as the original. It would be difficult for an end user to be able to tell the difference without some elaborate measuring equipment.
B grade bearings are units that were made by the original manufacturer but did not pass final quality checks and were subsequently sold at a discount on the open market.
B Grade bearings are almost always bearings with an excessive internal bearing clearance or some dimensional irregularity.
Unfortunately, the European and North American markets have been flooded with bike shops and online retailers selling counterfeit and B grade bearings as OE spec originals, 90% of bearings sold on Ebay/Amazon UK are fake or B grade. I have had numerous emails from disgruntled cyclists claiming that “NTN bearings are **** and Hambini is a fraud”, it later transpired they were supplied B grade bearings from prominent online bike bearing retailers claiming to have sourced units from NTN-SNR UK and SKF UK.
To add insult to injury, an online retailer in West Yorkshire UK claiming to have a direct supply route had previously been raided by SKF’s counterfeiting team in conjunction with UK trading standards. They were thought to have supplied over £250k of fake bearings.
Spotting a Fake bearing
It is not always obvious which is a fake bearing. The example below shows two SKF bearings, the bearing on the right is the fake despite it’s more authentic looking packaging.
The picture below shows two NTN 6806LLB bearings, one is directly from NTN European Headquarters in France, the other was purchased from a prominent online supplier of bicycle bearings
The bearing on the right was later confirmed to be a counterfeit by NTN themselves. NTN bearings of this size and code do not have plastic cages
The packaging on these two bearings is nearly identical, the colour match is perfect, the holograms are indistinguishable. Even the security tape is the same
The number on the rear is the only difference, 105 on the real bearing and 705 on the fake bearing. NTN confirmed that both numbers are valid so this is not a method for establishing a fake.
On the inside, the packaging still looks the same
The bearings themselves look identical. The markings are perfect and the seals are an exact copy.
Both bearings spin quite easily but it’s pretty obvious to someone with experience that the fake has much more bearing clearance. Bearing clearance is measured in fractions of a millimetre and is usually measured with elaborate measuring equipment. Bearings are given a clearance value called the C number, unmarked bearings like these would be classed as C Normal. The genuine bearing was a C Normal. The fake bearing, when measured had excessive clearance.
A slightly better method of checking but by no means full proof is to check the hardness of the bearing. The fake bearing was comparatively easy to scratch, indicating a low level of hardening. It is probably difficult to see but in this photograph, the scratches on the bearing surface have been created by a stanley/utility knife.
The overall bearing performance of the counterfeit bearing was poor. Vibration was much higher and the ultimate load rating before failure was reduced.
The quality of the fake bearing is visually exceptional. It looks like a carbon copy but the internal engineering is not as good as the original.
Unfortunately it is very difficult to spot a fake bearing or a B grade bearing. The copies have become very good and the equipment required to determine the fakes is expensive and beyond the budget of the casual cyclist. Realistically, unless the supply chain is traced, it’s impossible to determine the fakes. Initially, NTN and SKF used app based methods of verification but quickly realized that anyone who was able to copy the QR codes could bypass this layer of protection.
Within Europe the most commonly counterfeited sizes are 6802, 6803, 6903, 6805 and 6806. The recurring theme is the second digit 8 which is the second smallest standard size for a bore (the bearing number sequence has a geometric relationship). There is a proliferation of that particular race grinding tool and thus those bearings are very cost effective to counterfeit. Some estimates suggested that at one stage between 30 and 40% of SKF/FAG/NTN/NSK bearings sold in Europe were counterfeit or B grade..