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Samsung Galaxy Note 7: A fiery phone story with a good ending!

Posted on February 6th, 2017 by in Chemical Manufacturing Excellence

Samsung follow up

There are few people left in the world who have not heard of the saga of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7.  The device debuted to raving reviews in August 2016, but was recalled and its manufacturing ceased on October 10, 2016. To learn about the story or to refresh your memory you can refer to a past post.  In short, about 1% of the over three million Note 7s were defective according to Samsung.  Some of those units caught fire randomly, and occasionally blew up, in all kinds of places including on a Southwest Airlines airplane.  Mercifully, the plane was still parked at the gate.  The final and fatal blow was delivered when the US Federal Aviation Administration banned the phone from passenger cabins and checked luggage.  That move was followed by airlines all around the globe thus bringing a quick ending to the life of Note 7.

The debacle of highly touted Note 7 created a crisis for the Samsung Corporation.  Nothing hurts a company more than the loss of customer confidence in its products.  Samsung sells a variety of products globally, rendering the cost of loss of confidence in its other product lines immense.  Fear is a major driver of human decision including in buying products.  Fear often defies logic and reasoning and could quickly result in the wrong assumptions.  Irrational as those assumptions might be, customers could view other Samsung products as also being prone to fire and mishaps.  Realizing the facts Samsung Corporation set out to investigate the cause(s) of Note 7 fires, planning to share those findings with the public and hopefully improve its public image.  Buddha said it best: Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.

Samsung devoted over 700 of its research and development staff to the investigation.  They tested over 200,000 Note 7 devices and over 30,000 batteries. Samsung also brought in three outside companies Underwriters Laboratory, Exponent and TUV Rheinland to conduct their own investigations of the Note 7 defects.  Samsung Corp took the view that it could use the Note 7 fiasco as an opportunity to improve lithium-ion battery safety across every industry.  It would thus, not only, unearth the root cause of Note 7 failure but it would allow other companies to make use of its findings to enhance the safety of lithium ion batteries.  Sharing of the findings with the standard boards would permit changes to industry-wide specifications.

After the phones began to catch fire Samsung sent out a recall and replaced the phones with another version with a battery from a different manufacturer. That did not appear to fix the problem because fire was reported involving the replaced devices. It was odd that the same defect involved the replacement Note 7s even though their batteries came from two different manufacturers.  This fact pointed to the limitations the Companies are reaching with the current state of lithium ion battery technology.  That limit arose from the attempts to decrease battery size while increasing battery life inside ever-smaller devices.  If there was a wake up call, it was for the entire industry not just one company.

The issue with the first version of the Note 7 was that the battery’s negative electrode had a slight deflection, allowing the positive and negative electrodes to meet.  When that happens, fires start. The second version of the Note 7 came with a new battery from a different manufacturer.  This battery had abnormal welding burrs (slight bumps leftover by welding) on the positive electrode. The welding burrs caused direct contact between the positive and negative electrode causing fire (Source: A. Tilley, Forbes, Jan 22, 2017).

Samsung has beefed up its quality control of the device batteries. They plan to introduce what the Company calls an “8 Point Battery Safety Check.” The eight steps include a durability test, visual inspection, an X-ray test, charge and discharge test, a leak detection test, a disassembling test, an accelerated usage test, and then finally a test for comparing battery voltage.

Some people have suggested Samsung could have predicted the battery problem with the Note 7 earlier.  Perhaps or perhaps not, what is certain is hindsight is always twenty-twenty.  Another certainty is Samsung’s admirable speed of finding the root causes of the fires and making corrections.  While it is hard to predict how quickly customer confidence in Samsung phones and tablets returns, undoubtedly the Company’s response will be helpful to that recovery.  Let’s hope other corporations will be half as diligent as Samsung when product defects are discovered.

One last point, according to New York Times the decision to ditch the Note 7 cost Samsung an estimated $6.2 billion (Source: P. Mozur, New York Times, January 22, 2017).  It is an understatement to say Samsung will remember the N7 lesson for a long time.


All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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