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OM in the News: Samsung’s Battery Fix Gets a C Grade

January 24, 2017
To figure out what caused its Note 7 to catch on fire, Samsung put 200,000 phones through several different tests

To figure out what caused its Note 7 to catch on fire, Samsung put 200,000 phones through different tests

“After four months of testing over 200,000 phones,” writes The Wall Street Journal (Jan. 23, 2017), “what did Samsung determine caused its flagship Note 7 to catch fire?” The answer: Bad batteries. Two separate sets of bad batteries made by two different companies.

But what Samsung is still missing is its Tylenol moment. In 1982, Johnson & Johnson issued a massive recall after 7 people died from taking Tylenol products laced with cyanide. It led the company, and then the rest of the industry, to rethink pill packaging. Consumers saw the new seals as a mark of safety and protection. Samsung’s work on a seal that consumers can understand is still incomplete.

A quick recap: Note 7’s with 2 different versions of the battery–Samsung calls them A and B–were released last August. Soon after, some of the phones with Battery A started to burn up. Samsung recalled the phones, quickly replacing them with just Battery B models. Some of these phones started to burn up also, compelling Samsung to yank the phone altogether.

After erecting labs with 700 staff to test 30,000 batteries, Samsung has concluded that neither its hardware nor software was to blame. Instead, Samsung says the battery had issues.

Battery A had a design issue: There wasn’t enough room inside the battery for routine expansion of its component electrodes. Battery B had a welding issue caused by a manufacturing defect, which didn’t appear until production ramped up after Battery A was pulled from the market. (The resulting microscopic burrs poked through barriers inside the battery).

The core of the problem was that Samsung didn’t have the quality controls needed to identify the battery problems before they reached consumers.

Classroom discussion questions:

  1. What responsibility might Samsung share in setting the specifications and requirements for the Note 7 batteries?
  2. How can a phone maker prevent this kind of problem in the future?
4 Comments leave one →
  1. Ken permalink
    January 24, 2017 12:20 am

    On question 2, when I worked for Motorola in the 70’s and 80’s, there was a process called ALTAMONTE, or Accelerated Life Test. The test simulated 6 years of use under harsh conditions. I’d be surprised if Samsung wasn’t using that (or a similar) methodology. It certainly could have prevented the problem!

  2. January 24, 2017 3:13 pm

    Excellent observation. Thanks, Ken.

  3. dick hercher permalink
    January 24, 2017 4:01 pm

    So, what kind of ‘seal’ can they use to assure customers ala Tylenol? Any ideas?

  4. January 25, 2017 12:14 am

    Dick, I don’t have a good answer to that. But yesterday’s New York Times (Jan. 24, 2017) writes:

    “How could such a technologically advanced titan — a symbol of South Korea’s considerable industrial might — allow the problems to happen to begin with? The answer to that question gets to deep shortfalls that former employees, suppliers and others who watch the company say may have contributed to the incident. Samsung, like South Korea as a whole, fosters a top-down, hidebound culture that stifles innovation and buries festering problems. Pushing to make the battery thinner and more powerful, Samsung opted for an exceptionally thin separator in its battery. As the critical component that separates the positive and negative electrodes in a battery, separators can cause fires if they break down or contain flaws”.

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