Know Your Imports

Be diligent when sourcing products from overseas, says Tad Dunville, regional sales manager at Pintsch Bubenzer USA LLC, as his exclusive series of articles in LHI continues.

Pintsch Bubenzer, Crane Brakes,

The industrial lifting equipment marketplace is import centric, meaning products and components are sourced from all over the world. I’m not here to discuss the pros and cons of such a global supply chain per se, but it’s worth reiterating the realities of taking ownership of a product manufactured overseas.

It’s relatively simple to make a judgement on the product alone largely based on value for money but, as we’ll explore, it gets more complicated when one considers the bigger picture in terms of maintenance, replacement, and support. In all instances, these issues shouldn’t be seen as deal-breakers, but they do warrant exploration as they paint a big picture. It’s not always a case of import versus domestic either; in this era it’s good to have an effective checklist by which to compare a number of imported options.

Crucially, don’t take this guidance as advice against imports. Indeed, my business’s equipment is often requested as single-source in specification documents here in the U.S., but it’s made in Germany. And that’s really how the door to imports opens; when there is not a good substitute made domestically that compares on price, quality, engineering, or other differentiators. Otherwise, we’d always consider the inherent advantages of purchasing an item from the nearest supplier.

Key components

Typically, there are two types of imported product that this guidance applies to:

1. An item, such as a hoist, that has been entirely manufactured overseas.

2. A product that contains a component that has been made abroad, for instance, lifting equipment installed by a regional U.S. crane builder but with German-made brakes.

Inevitably, the type of product and component matters greatly to the extent to which due diligence is required.

Be aware that there are plenty of products ‘Made here’ that contain imported components. Those parts have a key role to play in the safe and / or efficient running of a machine, or else they wouldn’t be there. So if they’re from another continent, what happens when they break down? Where is the replacement part, engineering expertise, and installation team going to come from when it fails just as production is about to ramp up to deliver a landmark order? An electric overhead travelling (EOT) crane, for example, is a tool that provides productivity and bottom line results; it’s not a luxury item a facility can afford to be without.

Always ask suppliers questions. For example, what is the longevity of a company’s presence in the domestic marketplace? It might be interesting to know if a business has a long pedigree of delivering to a region and certainly worthwhile finding out if they’ve just started supplying there as an experiment. If they are newcomers, yet the offer remains appealing, it’s advisable to check if they’ve got a history of supplying into a similar market that can be used as a reliable blueprint. Where they are successful, what technical support is on hand? Will that be replicated elsewhere? Will they invest in local stock? Will that warehouse store the full range or only certain items?

Consider whether an importing company or distributor is supplying a standard catalogue product or a solutions-based system. The former won’t need a lot of engineering back-up support; it might be a boxed, low-cost item that’s simply cheaper to manufacture in Asia. However, if it’s a highly engineered bit of kit that requires engineering skill, does that level of expertise exist in the import market, either at a satellite office, subsidiary, or a recommended third party?

It might be that it isn’t feasible to endure downtime whilst someone crosses the Atlantic. Further, if the only product expert is based in Ukraine, speaks little English, and is usually asleep during operating hours where his or her product is imported, it’s better to know about it before placing the order.

Language barrier

Languages and cultures are worth considering further.

Think of the peculiarities of places where “yes” might mean “no”. That’s quite important when the question is, “Can you repair my crane at short notice?” Americans take Thanksgiving and Fourth of July seriously, while a European supplier might go on holiday for most of August. That’ll have an impact if a Spanish component breaks down on a Canadian crane when everyone at the manufacturer has headed to the airport with his or her bathing suit.

I’d recommend asking suppliers for their full annual calendar. Where are the public holidays? If a long weekend is coming up and the production team is winding down on Thursday lunchtime, how long might it be before an item can get shipped with a nationwide backlog stacking up at the dockside?

Documentation can be problematic too. To continue to use lifting language, it’s vital that a facilities management team have access to a crane manual that makes sense. In my geography, I’d want to know if references are in American English. And if they are, has an expert in U.S. engineering produced the document or was it a European on Google?

Travel teaches us a lot about language. English people find out pretty young that Americans spell ‘color’ without the ‘u’ but it takes time to know what is meant by a vehicle’s hood, bonnet, boot, and trunk in different areas. Europeans say “execution” where an American might say “configuration”—and so on.

Good on paper

I’ve met bright people who didn’t know that paper sizes vary across the world. A4 paper measures 210mm by 297mm (8.26 in. by 11.69 in.) versus U.S. letter paper at 215.9mm by 279.4mm (8.5 in. by 11 in.). This is important if a maintenance manager at a jobsite needs an urgent hardcopy of something but there’s no way of duplicating the document as the copying machine won’t accept the larger or smaller sized sheets. It sounds trivial but unless an importer is used to such issues, they might not have information in various formats.

While we’ve got our measuring tape to hand, it’s worth touching upon units of measurement. People assume that every time they deal with an American business the Imperial system counts, where things are measured in feet, inches, and pounds. And generally they’d be right but, as Pintsch Bubenzer is familiar with, many ports have adopted Metric and readily talk in terms of metres, for example. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Defense (defence) is Metric-minded so a potential importer could waste their time, and demonstrate ignorance, by making conversions.

The trade union movement stands for broadly similar principles the world over but the execution is different depending on where they are applied. We looked at public holidays and vacation periods earlier, and much of the same advice applies here. If a marketplace where a supplier operates is familiar with strikes and slowdowns, it’s best to know about it ahead of time. Similarly, work rule rigidity is something to be aware of.

What do relevant unions say about company visits? At Bubenzer, we welcome visitors to our site in Germany to witness manufacture and get an impression of the extent of engineering that goes into a single product. However, some regions’ unions won’t allow third parties to get hands on. Might that put someone off signing a supply agreement?

We could extend the list, but that certainly highlights a few key areas to look at when considering an imported product versus a domestic one, or even when matching up foreign providers or parts against each other. Gut instinct counts for something but there’s a lot more we can do to limit risk and stack the odds of a successful import partnership in our favour.

Tad Dunville
Regional Sales Manager, Pintsch Bubenzer USA LLC
Vice President & Board Member, Crane Certification Association of America (CCAA)
[email protected]

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