Why Samsung’s Battery Fix Gets a Grade C, For Now
Two separate sets of bad batteries made by two different companies, in fact. That’s like a meteor striking your house—twice.
Samsung is on an apology tour for the gobsmacking screwup that led to two successive recalls of the Note 7. In interviews with us, Samsung’s mobile chief, DJ Koh, and other executives shared stacks of testing photos, results of its investigation and its plans to improve quality control.
Can we trust Samsung not to let it happen again? “I feel very sorry about it,” Mr. Koh said. Samsung is “working around the clock to figure out how to bring back customer trust.”
At this point, we grade those efforts a C. Samsung was clearly serious about investigating the issue with the help of independent experts, but its explanation sometimes left us scratching our heads. While it has developed a new 8-point battery check for future phones, we don’t have a clear sense of whether these tests will raise the bar on safety, or simply catch Samsung up to other premium smartphone makers.
What Samsung is still missing is its Tylenol moment. In 1982, Johnson & Johnson issued a massive recall after seven 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—and bringing about change across the industry—is still incomplete.
A quick recap: Note 7s with two different versions of the battery—what Samsung calls Battery A and Battery 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. Soon after, some of those phones started to burn up, too, compelling Samsung to yank the phone entirely.
After erecting labs with over 700 R&D staff to test 200,000 phones and over 30,000 batteries, Samsung has concluded that neither its hardware (including the screen and wireless charging unit) nor software was to blame. Instead, Samsung says the battery, created by two different suppliers who made them differently, had issues.
Battery A had a design issue. The CliffsNotes version: 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.
Those problems caused the Note 7’s batteries to short out, Samsung says. We have no reason to doubt Samsung’s scientific findings. UL, a certification firm, told us it independently came to the same conclusion. “It was almost like a perfect storm building,” said Sajeev Jesudas, president of UL’s consumer business. “You simply have to ensure that your manufacturing process is perfect.”
Our concern is that Samsung doesn’t acknowledge much possible connection between these two unfortunate events. If your two children both independently started getting bad grades, wouldn’t you want to know whether something you did contributed to the problem?
If Samsung doesn’t have a full answer to what led to its problem, it can’t effectively prevent it in the future. What responsibility might Samsung share in setting the specifications and requirements for the Note 7 batteries? Did Samsung rush the battery manufacturers, particularly of Battery B?
When we pressed the issue, Mr. Koh said in hindsight he embraces and takes responsibility for the malfunction in part because the design of the phone was “quite aggressive.” Samsung has a give and take with its battery makers, he said. “If they don’t accept it, we cannot push it.”
In future phone designs, Samsung said it will add a bracket to provide additional battery protection when a phone is dropped.
The core of the problem, Mr. Koh said, was that Samsung didn’t have the quality controls needed to identify the battery problems before they reached consumers. That’s where Samsung takes full responsibility, and vows to change.
What are they doing about it?
Samsung says it has a new eight-point quality plan for future smartphones, including several additional tests that it says would have identified fire hazards in the Note 7. They include taking X-rays of the battery to spot internal abnormalities and performing accelerated usage tests to simulate two weeks of real-life use in five days. One test involves drilling holes straight through batteries to see what happens.
“We have confidence that it won’t occur again,” said Tim Baxter, president of Samsung Electronics America.
Most of the tests will happen on a sample of phones, but some, such as checking for a change in voltage throughout manufacturing, will occur on all of them. It’s unusual for final manufacturers to do their own X-Ray testing, said Bill Cardoso, chief executive of X-ray test maker Creative Electron, who wasn’t briefed on Samsung’s plan. He said an important variable is sample size for checks like the X-ray test, which is effective but expensive and slow.
Surprisingly, Samsung says it doesn’t expect the extra tests will delay or slow smartphone releases. “The impact might be measured in days, instead of months” said Justin Denison, Samsung’s senior vice president of product marketing.
It’s great that Samsung is taking on more responsibility, but it’s difficult to evaluate what impact the changes will have in such a secretive industry. Is Samsung playing catch up? Samsung says its previous testing regime complied with regulations, but was it less careful than others? Archrival Apple, for one, didn’t respond to a request for information about its battery testing practices.
Waiting for real change
Mr. Koh told us Samsung would earn back our trust by leading change for all smartphones. “We want to improve the quality of lithium-ion batteries not only for Samsung, but across the industry,” he said.
That’s no easy task, given our demands that these gadgets keep lasting longer while doing more. As phones from all brands require ever-denser power sources, they probably only get riskier from here.
Samsung says it hired an advisory group, including professors at Stanford and Cambridge, to help lead it to new and safer batteries. The four either declined or didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Samsung plans to share its 8-point testing plan and some future intellectual property for battery tech with independent testing groups and companies.
We’d like to see Samsung take direct aim at the industry’s self-policing. Many electronics, like hair dryers and laptops, are certified to international safety standards by third parties like UL. Phones used to be considered less risky because they had low voltage, but that’s no longer the case. Individual components, like charging plugs, may be certified, but whole smartphones aren’t.
We’d like a smartphone certification seal that allows all of us to know the phone is safe, just like the seal we got from Tylenol. Samsung told us it will advertise its new safety plan and will contribute to a standardization body, but its executives were noncommittal when we asked about getting third parties involved in certifying the safety of its phones. “I am not quite sure that any third party in the world can say this product is safe, that product is safe,” said Mr. Koh.
Our C grade reflects that Samsung’s work is incomplete. If it wants to improve its grade, this is where it should spend its energies.