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REPLACEMENT PARTS: WHAT TO BUY?

Posted: August 1, 2014 by Allan Janssen

It’s bad enough being broken down at the side of the road. But what really gets to you is that the failed part was a relatively new one, installed just 10,000 kilometers ago. It came in a white box, at a great price, from a supplier you’d never heard of before. A real bargain, you think as you wait for back-up to arrive.

As margins shrink and the economy puts increasing pressure on every aspect of your business, cheap replacement parts may seem attractive on the surface, but industry watchers — manufacturers, distributors, and fleet managers alike — agree that chasing bargains is like playing Russian roulette with your shipments. “In the long run, you’ll almost certainly pay more if you buy cheap parts,” says Tim Chapman, senior supervisor for fleet maintenance at Atlantic Wholesalers.

That’s what you’d expect to hear. The problem is knowing which is the cheap part. Given the stiff competition out there for your repair and maintenance dollars, and with quality standards rising, you can no longer assume that every discounted part is trouble. Price is no longer enough to distinguish a bargain from a breakdown-waiting-to-happen.

“There is a whole mixed bag out there,” admits Al Tucker of the Heavy Duty Distributors Council, an organization of parts manufacturers and distributors. “The range of quality runs the full gamut.” He attributes it to globalization, which has brought down the cost of manufacturing, and opened the door to new aftermarket players.

“As more and more companies entered the aftermarket stream, they began looking for cost-cutting measures, including manufacturing in countries with significantly lower production costs,” he explains. “And, at the same time, foreign companies began to see opportunities in North America. There was a boom in so-called ‘white-box’ parts — components made overseas for our market.”

Now, mass production in places like China, India, and Taiwan tends to go one of two ways. There are the modern factories, with well-trained work forces, and an obvious commitment to ISO quality standards. And there are the less-advanced factories, which cut corners wherever they can. Their parts don’t meet the most exacting OE specifications for fit and performance; they aren’t tested for reliability; they don’t sport the polished finish of higher-quality components; and if they’re guaranteed at all, it usually isn’t for very long.

“We have to be careful not to condemn companies in other countries,” says Tucker. “There are a lot of high-quality parts coming out of factories all over the world, both for brand-name North American companies, and for up-and-coming foreign companies. There are also inferior parts making their way into our market, both for North American companies and foreign companies. It’s a very complex and diversified industry we’re working in now. It’s not black and white at all.”

Paul Raymond, president of Parts for Trucks, a parts wholesaler with 14 locations in Atlantic Canada, agrees that white-box parts can be found at both ends of the quality spectrum, and everywhere in the middle.

“Where the product is made is less an issue than who makes it, or who is controlling the manufacture of it,” he says. “There are white-box suppliers who have been in business for a long time and stand behind their products, and you can get warranty from them. There are other white-box suppliers who literally come and go, and don’t make any effort to let you know who they are or how you can get in touch with them afterward.”

To complicate matters, unscrupulous operators intentionally mimic the aesthetics and defining characteristics of well-known brands. These counterfeit components may look the part, but quality is often lacking.

“Although counterfeits are less common these days than they were, say, 10 years ago, there are still some very obvious attempts to deceive consumers,” says Raymond. “What we see now are attempts to misrepresent the part by using the same part number as a nationally recognized brand, with a little prefix or a suffix. People tend to lock onto a certain part number and they’ll order it that way. Problem is instead of part #2003 from a company you know and trust, it is part #Y-2003 or #2003-K and that’s a totally different quality product. You really have to be careful.”

Harry Howard, vice-president and general manager of commercial vehicle aftermarket worldwide for ArvinMeritor, says makers of premium name-brand parts must constantly remain vigilant against manufacturers who will try to capitalize on their reputation, whether it’s through a look-alike box or identifying marks on the part itself. He says the downside of globalization is that it has made it easier for inferior and copycat parts to make their way into the North American market. The upside, though, is that it has become much less costly to produce high-quality parts. Keeping an eye on the process is the key.

“As the economy became more global, it forced many manufacturers to start sourcing on a global basis,” he says. “It doesn’t matter where you produce if you’ve got standards in place in the manufacturing process. When they are our own factories, we’re in control of the process, obviously, but even when we subcontract to other factories, that supplier has to meet the same tolerances and inspection criteria that we run to in our own facilities.”

He says premium parts, whether they’re made in North America or abroad, will always have a few advantages over the less-expensive alternatives. “When you build a quality part, some of the key things you can offer are durability, reliability, availability, and support,” he says. “If you cut corners, you lose one or more of those things.”

The bottom line is that price and quality tend to rise and fall together.

For Chapman, who is charged with making sure Atlantic Wholesalers’ 40 tractors and 130 trailers stay mobile, it’s worth it to pay a little more for a part of sufficient quality to meet the company’s needs.

“Our philosophy has always been that it’s not the cheapest price that matters; it’s the best price,” he says. “The best price includes warranty considerations, reduced labour time, and reduced downtime. We’d rather pay the extra and not have to revisit the same problem over and over again.”

SAFETY

Tucker believes the biggest incentive for buying quality parts ought to be safety.

“I don’t think there’s a huge issue out there with poor quality stuff, whether it comes from offshore or not,” he says, “but we have to be constantly vigilant in what replacement parts we buy because we’re talking about road safety here.”

Some components are more critical to vehicle safety. Fasteners, for example.

“You just can’t buy unidentified fasteners,” says Tucker. “You should know where the fastener is coming from. Who’s the manufacturer? What’s the brand name? Were the parts ever batch-tested? Is the grade certified? It’s buyer beware in some respects.”

He says when the price is just too good to be true, warning bells should go off in buyers’ minds. “How can one set of brake pads cost $69.99 and another one cost $29.99?” Tucker says. “You’ve got to wonder if the cheap one is just something that was mixed up in someone’s barn and pressed between two bricks. I’m exaggerating of course, but the point is you have to ask yourself what’s missing here?”

Raymond says there are some parts you just don’t want to skimp on. “Consider the role of the component itself. Some are a lot more important to the safety and life of the vehicle,” he says. “Driveline, steering, and brakes are more critical than mirrors or lights.”

Raymond stresses that if you spend 10 per cent more on a part but get twice the life, you’re coming out way ahead. You might save on a cheaper part, but if that part leads to a breakdown or extended maintenance time, that part will end up being far more expensive than any premium part.

“The argument for spending a little more money for a premium product is how long the part in question will last,” he says. “If you’re faced with replacing that same part shortly thereafter, or in a shorter interval than with a better-made product, you have to consider the labour cost of replacing it. That, typically, is half the bill right there.”

Chapman agrees. “The issue is not shelling out more money to a vendor for the part,” he says. “The issue is the increased labour needed to replace parts more often. If a technician weren’t installing a brake chamber that got done not too long ago, he could be spending more time on preventive maintenance.”

Carey Romeo, fleet maintenance manager for Hillman’s Transfer of Sydney, N.S., says reducing down-time is his whole objective when he’s buying parts. “We travel all over the U.S. and Canada. I want every truck to come back safely. I don’t want any problems on the road, so we’ll pay for quality parts,” he says. “Any extra money we spend on parts we earn back by avoiding down-time.”

He says knowing the company behind the part is a big consideration.

“Most often I’ll go with brand name parts, not only because I trust the quality more, but because the company will stand behind the part if it fails.”

A recognized manufacturer or distributor will offer some recourse if a part doesn’t perform the way it should. The same can’t be said of the smaller, anonymous companies which specialize in having the cheapest prices.

Howard says warranty implies a great deal about the quality of a product, and is a significant consideration for professional drivers. “If you’re travelling coast to coast, or country to country, you’re looking for adequate warranty support,” he says. “If you’re buying a product that is only available regionally, or a brand which is not national or multinational, you’re running the risk of having downtime in an area where you can’t get an immediate replacement for.”

There are all kinds of warranties out there, he says, including some which are only valid at the point of purchase — which leaves you hanging if the part fails on the road.
“There will be costs out of your own pocket until you can get back home to be reimbursed,” he warns.

Often people who buy the highest quality parts are taking a systematic approach to fleet maintenance, says Howard. They’re purchasing replacement parts from the same supplier who made the original equipment on that vehicle, or they’re looking at the whole system, as opposed to just a component within the system. Their interest is in life cycle improvement, better cost-per-mile, reduced downtime, and extended serviceability — all of which are very important in managing the profitability of a vehicle.

“You have to get away from the acquisition price and look at the price per mile,” adds Raymond. “People who are successful today and are going to stay that way are making decisions on that basis.”

He says customers are becoming better educated. They’ve done their own research on the parts they want. The Internet is a powerful tool for getting information about the manufacturers that are out there and the kind of parts they offer. You can find out the part numbers, the availability of the parts, the applicable warranty, technical information, and service instructions.

Comparative shopping has become as easy as clicking a mouse. Too easy, perhaps, advises Howard.

“Know the people you buy your parts from,” he explains. “Make sure you’re purchasing products that have a reputation for meeting your needs. Some of that is done through experience, not only your own, but through organizations that you may belong to, or through the experience of other companies with whom you share data. That’s going to help you make a better choice.”

Raymond says quality you require in a part largely depends on what the vehicle will be doing.

“There may be cases where a discount part is appropriate,” he says. “There may be a place for that if you’re really near the end of the duty cycle on the truck, or if it’s being put to modest applications in non-demanding situations. But if you’re hauling logs on a wood road in cold temperatures and likely to be overweight because there’s no scale, that situation is incredibly more demanding than doing deliveries around town, or short-distance line-haul work. There’s a wide range of applications here and our job is to make sure people take that into consideration and select components that are right for the job.”

Romeo says the condition and use of the vehicle plays a big part in his buying decisions.

“If it’s a newer truck that’s still under warranty, it’ll go back to the dealer and probably end up with OE parts on it,” he says. “But if it’s an older truck, we’ll buy ‘will-fit’ parts. They’re not necessarily of a lower quality. Most are still brand name parts; you’re just not paying the 20- or 30- or 40-per cent premium to have the truck manufacturer’s logo on the box.”

That kind of approach has led many major parts manufacturers to offer a range of quality to their customers.

“A lot of part categories run the gamut of price and value,” says Howard. “It’s kind of a good-better-best situation. You target those products based on the market you’re trying to go after. The first owner of the vehicle, the second owner, and the third owner all have different needs that you’re trying to satisfy.”

All this talk on the quality of the parts has to be based on a fleet keeping good maintenance records. “Otherwise the discussion is just anecdotal,” says Raymond. “Fleets that can tell you which brands they buy and why have got data to back up their decisions.”

Good maintenance software packages can keep those kind of records. If a ball joint goes bad in 23 months, for example, a flag will go up with a note saying, “Wait a minute, where did you get that one, because it didn’t last.”

“We put everything on our computer system,” says Romeo. “If an alternator gives out after six months, someone will remember that it’s a relatively new alternator and we’ll look it up.”

Chapman’s maintenance program will track all repairs and will flags any part that failed in an unreasonably short period of time. “We’ll take that issue up with our supplier,” he says.

Considering the quality range that’s available in parts these days is a relatively new facet of the business, but one that can pay big dividends to companies that choose wisely. “It’s frustrating when a customer only wants to hear what the price of a part is,” says Raymond. “It’s far more rewarding when a customer wants to consider the bigger picture and wants to participate in making a well-rounded decision.”

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