Grey imports are an irritant to many manufacturers, but are they not a by-product of non-tariff barriers and the absence of global standards?
Most cranes and aerial lifts are now designed from the start to meet worldwide standards at least in terms of structure and stability. A few are even equipped as standard to meet all major standards and regulations from the factory. However the vast majority require small changes to specification, equipment or controls etc… in order to comply with regional regulations. These units can in most cases be converted relatively easily, ‘technically’ allowing buyers to purchase a product in one market and then modify it for another.
However it is not quite as simple as that and attempts to do this can be minefield for those who try. These so called ‘Grey market’ machines have been a serious issue in Australia, due to unscrupulous traders selling machines that do not comply at all with the local standards. In the event of an accident the repercussions for the buyer can be severe. Both the crane and aerial lift associations have been very active in dealing with the issue and regularly warn members. The Cranesafe programme is also increasingly picking up any non-compliant machines and preventing new arrivals.
In Europe the warnings have largely come from manufacturers and dealers, with a commercial ‘axe to grind’ and their efforts to block non-official imports have been perceived to be driven by pricing and market control factors, rather than safety reasons. As a result they have been a great deal less successful.
We have a case that we have been following for some time that highlights some of the challenges relating to this subject, even if when the original intentions were clear and open and the manufacturer was involved.
A year ot two ago a European crane rental company decided to purchase a Chinese built 30 tonne truck crane. We understand that he visited the factory, evaluated the machine and eventually ordered one – from one of the manufacturer’s official distributors but …….in Canada. Before you ask it was probably price?!
Anyway the written order was very clear, it specified the deal precisely from shipment details to the additional, very substantial fee for modifications and third party CE certification. The crane was duly ordered – the manufacturer clearly had sight of the order and the Canadian dealer’s instructions to ship the unit from Shanghai to the UK, where a Notified Body had been contracted to test and certify the crane, before shipping it on to the buyer’s home country.
The crane arrived in the UK and having conducted its first inspection the Notified Body requested the information from the manufacturer that it needed to make up the technical file for certification. The manufacturer refused and then simply ignored the requests – or so we are told. The buyer appealed to the Canadian dealer and to the manufacturer directly. Neither he nor the dealer got anywhere. Finally the manufacturer wrote back to the buyer saying that the crane was not designed for the EU, that it was intended for the Canadian market and was not CE approved and that he should not have purchased it in Canada and that was that- it was not its problem.
In previous cases where manufacturer’s were totally unaware if such shenanigans – they have tended to help out and provide a technical file to a bona fide Notified Body, but have charged the buyer a substantial sum for doing so. Thus discouraging such practices and covering the administration costs of pulling the relevant documentation. In many cases the CE technical file already exists and is on file with a Notified Body.
When CE marking began in the 1990s I was working for a manufacturer and we anticipated questions such as – can I CE my existing machines? – What if I buy a machine from outside the EU etc… At that time we decided that instead of saying No we would offer a fee based conversion service. The customer would give us the machine’s serial number, we would check the specification it was built to and provide a list of modifications required – or if conversion was not technically possible inform him. Once the changes were carried out and signed off by a qualified engineer we would provide the relevant CE conformity paperwork. In reality I don’t recall we did many- if any, of these ‘conversions’ but it seemed a far more customer friendly response than simply saying “No – go away”.
In the case of the Chinese crane, we have seen the paper work and the manufacturer must have been aware of what was intended with this order, so its refusal to co-operate at any cost is particularly galling to the buyer. Even if it had been unaware of the situation, it could have at the very least co-operated for an additional – perhaps substantial -fee. One assumes that the dealer is turned off, while the crane rental company is not only a lost client, but he is keen to make sure that everyone knows what this manufacturer is like to deal with in an awkward situation.
While it is a highly controversial subject, I believe that manufacturers could and should co-operate with customers to obtain retrospective certifications where it is practical. And that they should not use the current regulatory disparities as non-tariff trade barriers. I do appreciate that there is a strong case against this – due to safety and liability concerns. However the refusal to co-operate does not stop the trade, it simply drives it ‘underground’ and when something happens whose name is on the serial number plate?
Surely the best approach is support and showing the buyer that he would be far better off next time buying his crane locally? I am I suppose an ardent free trade advocate I absolutely detest the fact that DVD’s are blocked regionally and that every time I get a new computer I have to select a region – or it will do it for me. I sincerely hope that we see a common worldwide standard agreed for Cranes and aerial lifts within my lifetime.
The situation is already infinitely better than when I started out, until CE came along every European country had its own regulations, which severely restricted cross-border trade and kept prices artificially high, by restricting fair competition. It is also encouraging to see an increasing number of manufacturers launching ‘Global’ machines, and to see that standards are coming much closer together through ISO and a more common sense approach from regulators.
It is time though that we took the final step and introduced harmonized worldwide standards for Aerial lifts, Cranes and other equipment.