Saturday, December 14, 2013

When is a Motor not a Motor?

Belimo Automation v. United States presents a old problem for many importers, at what point is an assembly that includes a motor something other than a motor. Usually, when presented with that questions, Customs and Border Protection will say "Not here." Also of not, this marks the first appearance in this blog of newly minted Judge Mark Barnett of the U.S. Court of International Trade. Because Judge Barnett comes from the Department of Commerce, I suspect we will be seeing quite a few customs decisions from him while he waits for his work product from Commerce to work its way through the court process.

Belimo imported an assembly used in heating, ventilation, and cooling (HVAC) systems. It consisted of a single electric motor, gears and two printed circuits. One of the printed circuits connects to and monitors the electric motor, which are used to open and close dampers to adjust the flow of air. As HVAC systems go, the pc board (which is known as an ASIC) is fairly sophisticated. It connects to and monitors the position of the motor and can calculate the position of the gears in the imported device. That corresponds to the position of the air damper. Based on data from the central controller, the ASIC calculates the desired damper position and signals the motor to act accordingly.

So, is the assembly a motor of HTSUS Heading 8501 or is it an automatic regulating and control device of Heading 9032?

To fit in 9032, the device must control the flow, level, pressure, or other variable in a liquid or gas or automatically control temperature, whether or not the operation depends on an electrical phenomenon that varies according to the factor to be controlled, and that are designed to bring that factor to and maintain it at a desired value.

The importer made an elaborate argument that the factor to be controlled is something other than the flow, level, pressure in a liquid or gas or temperature. If so, the fact that the assembly does not measure any variable of air flow, a liquid, or temperature would not prevent its classification in 9032. But, the Court disagreed and held that "the factor" is just a shorthand way of restating the variables listed above (i.e., something about airflow, liquids, or temperature). Given that these devices do not measure one of those variables and take some action to keep it in check, they are not properly classified in Heading 9032.

So, again, what about 8501?

The devices convert electrical energy into mechanical power to move the damper. According to the Court of International Trade, that makes them motors. The presence of the ASIC is not enough to change that result. According to the Court, motors stay motors even when equipped with additional components, absent limiting language or legislative intent. The Explanatory Notes go on to say that motors remain classifiable in 8501 even when equipped with pulleys, gear boxes, or flexible shafts so long as the principal function remains the same as a motor.

While the ASIC contributes additional functionality to the assembly, the Court of International Trade concluded that those additional functions are complementary to the function of the motor. As a result, the merchandise remains classifiable in 8501.

That's all well and good, but it only goes so far. This question comes up a lot and it is not always clear how to draw the line. Take a hand kitchen mixer, for example, it really is nothing more than a motor. The dive shaft connects directly to the attachments, which rotate to impart force to the cake batter or other inchoate baked goods. Nothing about that is in principal distinct from a motor, except that the mixer has a specific function and is clearly identified with a different name. There are a lot of assemblies that contain motors that are similarly dedicated to a specific task and have specific names. Electric razors and electric toothbrushes are in that category. Those are not motors because they are dedicated to a particular task, have a specific name, and are more specifically classified elsewhere in the tariff. At what point is a specialized assembly that contains a motor something other than a motor? I'm not sure I have a general answer. I do know that in any given case it requires detailed and creative thinking by both the importer and Customs to get it right.

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