During the “Shop Talk” segment of the recent Technology and Maintenance Council (TMC) Fall Meeting, an attendee produced a set of wheel studs that were suspiciously sheared off inside the hub so only the heads remained. Various industry experts inspected the parts, and a number of explanations for the problem were offered. Predictably, all experts deferred to a metallurgist when the discussion turned to substandard offshore parts because the components in question could not be identified by any markings.
The tire and wheel industry is no stranger to the bad publicity wave that comes with a recall and/or safety-related issues involving imports. Maintenance professionals who boast they can spot every knock-off component are probably the same ones who can put their hand on the hood of a truck to see if the engine is low on oil. I've seen some substandard offshore parts that were exact replicas of originals, right down to the brand name of the OE manufacturer. In some instances, even experts cannot tell the difference without laboratory testing. While the absence of certain markings (some of which are required by law) and slight physical differences might be the first clues that something is amiss, the lower price often has a tendency to overshadow those details.
For the past few years, the passenger tire industry has been dealing with a rubber snap-in valve stem recall that involves millions of stems. Unlike a tire or wheel issue where the vehicle's owner can simply identify the component by the identification number, there is no way to determine whether faulty stems were installed. To make matters worse, the stems were supplied by a reputable manufacturer, but manufactured offshore.
There are basically two types of overseas manufacturing facilities: company-owned and independently owned. The company-owned plants are more or less the property of the manufacturer so everything is under their control. These plants are capable of producing the same quality as any other facility because the raw materials, technology, training and workforce are all controlled by the manufacturer on a day-to-day basis.
Independently owned plants are a whole different story, or a potential nightmare, depending on the situation. In the case of the rubber snap-in valve stem recall, the reputable company agreed to purchase valve stems built to their specifications from an independently owned offshore manufacturer and then distribute them domestically. I'm sure that the contract outlined all of the details regarding the quality and type of raw materials that could be used as well as the actual manufacturing process that was required. But after the contract was signed and the customer returned home, someone at the plant made a few slight changes to the rubber compound (to lower costs) without authorization — and a recall was eventually needed.
This is not a condemnation of overseas manufacturing or companies that utilize independently owned offshore plants for various parts. It is more a cautionary message for fleets to start asking questions regarding the origin and quality of replacement components, especially wheel studs and nuts. While unidentifiable parts in plain white boxes will typically result in lower operating costs in the short term, the long-term consequences could be astronomical. Since identifying the culprits in the case of a major stud recall could be next to impossible, the only alternative may be to replace everything — immediately.
Judging from what I saw at the TMC meeting, it's only a matter of time before a problem such as this arises.