Section: EMC2 News

Samsung battery bust shows pressure of innovation

September 29th, 2016 ›

 

Edward C. Baig , USA TODAY


(Photo: Richard Drew, AP)
NEW YORK - The Samsung Note 7 recall these past several weeks has been bad all around - for Samsung's customers, its reputation and its bottom line. But has it been bad for innovation?

The saga raises that question, as battery and industry experts attempt to draw lessons from Samsung's version of BatteryGate.

Device makers like Samsung must routinely navigate diametrically opposing forces: pressure to beat an arch rival to market, ideally with a product that's a lot better than the last one, while taking the time to make sure everything works and most importantly, is safe.

Samsung's recall of 1 million Galaxy Note 7 devices after more than 90 reports of overheating smartphones in the U.S. suggests the company may have erred on the side of speed and innovation, at the risk of quality.

Citing unnamed sources, Bloomberg News last week said Samsung sped up the launch of the new phone to beat what was expected to be a low-buzz upgrade from Apple in its planned September iPhone 7 launch. The timeline pressured suppliers to make faster deadlines on a phone loaded with features, the sources said.

"I don't know if this battery issue was directly a result of rushing the phone to market but I don't think there's any question that Samsung was rushing the phone to market," says Avi Greengart, research director for consumer devices with research firm Current Analysis in New Jersey.

"Samsung has been pulling its launches earlier in the calendar year to get out ahead of Apple.... And they've seen very positive sales results from doing so," Greengart said.

In a statement emailed to USA TODAY, Samsung said the "timing of any new mobile product is based on proper completion of the development process and the readiness of the product for the market."

Samsung certainly received high marks for the Note 7 when it was unveiled in August. The phablet phone, along with the Samsung's other flagship handset, the Galaxy S7, helped the South Korean tech giant regain its footing in the hotly contested global smartphone arena.

In the Note 7, Samsung delivered an attractive device with a souped-up S Pen stylus that you could write with underwater. Other stunts included iris recognition, expandable memory, and speedy wireless charging, all features lacking in the rival iPhone 7 that would arrive soon thereafter.

The battery episode that blew up in Samsung's face changed everything.

Christina Lampe-Onnerud, the founder and CEO of Cadenza Innovation, a lithium-ion battery tech startup in Oxford, Conn., believes Samsung cut corners. "This is a design error, not an isolated event. Samsung has a ton of talent and somehow they went outside their best practices."

Though it got some credit for transparency once it had announced an official recall, Samsung is far from putting the episode behind it. There have been a trickle of reports about battery problems with the replacement Galaxy Note 7s, suggesting the problem may not lie with one supplier, as originally suggested.

And on Wednesday, the company said it in "active discussions" with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission over reports that some of the company's top-loading washers may be exploding during a cycle.

When it comes to the phone, Hector Abruña, the director of the Energy Materials Center at Cornell University, says Samsung "played fast and loose," he says.

Smartphone customers continue to press manufacturers to do more: deliver lighter and smaller batteries that not only last all day and into the evening, but that can also be rapidly charged and in some cases charged wirelessly.

Battery design flaws

But battery chemistry is a tricky science, and in Abruña's words "needs to be treated with respect."

Abruña says manufacturers are resorting to a thin "club sandwich" design, in which positive and negative electrodes are stacked and kept apart using layers of separators. "Samsung used a separator that was too thin and this gave rise to shorts which made the batteries get very hot and fail catastrophically," he says.

The impact of the Note 7 recall has implications that extend beyond the batteries themselves.

An incident like this creates a "cascading effect" throughout the supply chain for some of the memory components inside the phones, which even ahead of the Note 7 woes were in short supply, said supply chain expert Paul Romano, the chief operating officer of Fusion Worldwide, an electronics components distributor based in Boston.

"Now something like this happens which means the shortage is only going to get exacerbated," pushing prices up, he said.

"That's one of the challenges with innovation," he says. "Development times are shortened and there's more risk in the supply chain."

This week, Samsung reported that 60% of Note 7s sold in the U.S. and Korea have been exchanged, with 90% of customers sticking with the Note 7 over another model. Samsung is still encouraging consumers to exchange faulty Note 7s for models deemed safe, but hasn't disclosed yet when new Notes would go back on sale in the U.S.

Lampe-Onnerud believes that Samsung has indeed addressed the problem. "Samsung basically pulled in their A-team...From my experience interacting with them, it would be highly unlikely they didn't fix it... They're very exposed right now. They took a hit for this which is the way a market economy works."

I've been able to charge and use my own replacement Note 7 loaner phone from Samsung, fortunately without incident. But Samsung may not be in the clear yet. Reports out of China are that one of the "safe" phones may have also caught on fire.

Email: ebaig@usatoday.com; Follow USA TODAY Personal Tech Columnist @edbaig on Twitter