Manufacturers fend off pirates with innovation

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

ATLANTA -- Though copy-cat products grow like weeds on the Medtrade show floor annually and entire industries have been brought to their knees by product piracy, major HME manufacturers say they've not been made to walk the plank by product thieves.
They say innovation, quality and value-added services have generally stifled the ability of pirates to win much business with me-too variations.
"If you look at the broad trends, you don't see these copy-cats gaining share," said Scott Mesuer, CEO of Pride Mobility Products. "In standard products, you may see it a lot more. But as you get to more complicated products, you see it less and less. For example, how do you differentiate a cane."
That's the challenge faced by the guys at TFI Healthcare, a manufacturer of ambulatory aids who are losing business to knock-off artists from Asia. The problem is so acute that TFI has decided to stop exhibiting at Medtrade after this year.
"We are spending a lot of money on the booth, and we basically said we are helping the competition by showing new products there," said Dave Battison, vice president of TFI.
His company is also shutting down its research and development efforts.
"We have decided not to invest in molds, because as soon as we do, they will duplicate it, and all our R&D will go to them," he said.
TFI makes 90% of its products in the United States.
In the last couple of years, Invacare has stepped up efforts to protect its products with patents and other legal actions. But there's often a lag between when they file for protection and when they can use those protections as a club.
In the meantime, they are forcing their own products out onto the proverbial plank.
"Besides the intellectual protection, we're obsoleting our own products as we continue to drive innovation," said Lou Slangen, senior vice president of worldwide market development.
Manufacturers are hopeful that dealers are savvy enough to believe in the old maxim of "you get what you pay for" and "what you see is not necessarily what you get," especially when it comes to quality.
"You can take one of my walkers and knock off its physical aspects, and they'll look exactly alike," said Pieter Leenhouts, vice president of standard products at Sunrise Medical. "But the fact of the matter is that because we believe quality is so important, we reinforce the sleeves of the walker with double-wall aluminum. There are non-visual things that are happening to the product that are not that visible."