If you’re traveling via a flight, remember to switch off your Samsung Galaxy Note 7 and put it in your carry bag before you step inside the plane. The Aviation Ministry has issued strict guidelines, after reports of the phone’s battery exploding made tech headlines around the world. What gives?
Samsung has recalled over 2.5 million Note 7 handsets sold since its launch this year. Apart from upgraded chipset, storage and memory, one of the key features of the phone was its powerful 3500mAh battery, which unfortunately has backfired, and quite literally so.
The battery explosion of a few Note 7 handsets may have been caused by a minor manufacturing defect, but is shows to highlight a practical challenge that almost all electronic companies face on with each upgrade for devices in all segments – packing a stronger battery in a thinner shell.
Any iota of doubt about a manufacturing defect in the Galaxy Note 7 was cleared when Samsung, on September 2, announced a rollback and a recall of all units sold and otherwise. The company also advised its users to switch off their Note 7 phones until they can be replaced starting September 19.
What Samsung plans to do with these phones is a software update which will limit the Note 7’s charging capacity to 60 per cent to check overheating. Almost all battery explosions were reported while the users were charging their phones. Like a time bomb which did not tick until…
Apart from the reports of Galaxy Note 7 catching fire or exploding, a user also reported that the phone’s explosion burned down his SUV.’ Last week, Canada also announced an official recall of the Note 7.
Not just in India, the US, Australia and Europe have also strongly advised people to not change or use their Note 7 smartphones during flights, or put them in their check-in baggage.
Despite the huge reports of damage and injuries caused by the Note 7 explosions, speaking on the issue Samsung’s President of mobile business said that a “tiny error” was found in manufacturing and the faulty batteries where very difficult to identify. He explained that discontinuing pouch-shaped battery cells had increased the chance of overheating.
Analysts are appalled by an error of this magnitude. A manufacturing error of this kind was unimaginable for a high-end battery maker with all possible quality checks, said Park Chul Wan, who formerly headed a battery research center at Korea’s Electronics Technology Institute.
He also advised that Samsung must look for other reasons than the battery cell type which may have been causing the hardware defect.
"If Koh's argument is right, that makes Samsung SDI a third-rate company. But it does not appear to be a simple battery problem," Mr Wan added.
A prerequisite of delivering a quality product, at times, is also challenged by the timing of its delivery
Samsung, in 2015, had unveiled its latest Galaxy Note model in August, a month in advance that its scheduled arrival to have an edge ahead of Apple's iPhone upgrades in September.
The move may have worked for Samsung’s marketing. The phone’s demand was exceeding its supply till the reports of its battery explosions arrived.
Samsung has been lip-tied about which of its battery suppliers delivered the faulty batteries, also sending mix signals on what it will take to fix the issue. Unlike in the rest of the world, Samsung has not recalled the Galaxy Note 7s sold in China. In other reports, Samsung has halted the use of batteries from Samsung SDI, which was one of the two suppliers for the Galaxy Note 7.
About 70 per cent of batteries using in the Galaxy Note 7 handsets came from SDI, estimated Nomura Securities analyst C.W. Chung based in Seoul.
A Chinese-based manufacturer Amperex Technology had reportedly supplied the rest 30 per cent of the Note 7 batteries, which is also a major supplier of iPhone batteries.
The problem however does not seem to be a “tiny manufacturing error”. Lithium ion batteries have had a negative impact on gadgets such as phones and laptops to Tesla cars and Boeing jetliners. But unprecedented is the no of incidents reported in such a short period of time, exclaimed Mr Park.
Lithium batteries have become the preferred choice of gadget manufacturers because of their light weight and the capacity to pack much more power than the power cells while consuming lesser space.
But this is what ups the risk factor as combustible components inside the battery have a separation of ultra-thin walls. And when exposed to high-temperatures, these batteries become vulnerable to overheating and manufacturing defects. At that moment, the separating wall tends to fail and a chemical reaction can spiral out of control.
Mr Koh explained this to be the core of Samsung Galaxy Note 7 problems.
"A manufacturing flaw resulted in negative and positive electrodes coming together," he said.
Despite pictures of burned down handsets starting doing the rounds on social media, Samsung failed to recognise the defect even after delaying shipments for what the company said was for extra quality checks.
South Korean analysts say that Samsung perhaps could have been so ambitious that it compromised safety while delivering the Galaxy Note 7.
But Lee Sang-yong, who teaches at Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology and has worked with a leading lithium battery maker, says that thicker separators will not necessarily prevent overheating.
Many including Doh Chil-Hoon, who heads the battery division of Korea Electrotechnology Research Institute, believes the greed of packing more power was the part of the problem and a small manufacturing defect was not enough to cause an explosion.
While Samsung like many other manufacturers flaunts the battery capacity in their handset models, Apple for its iPhones shies away from revealing the battery capacity in milliampere hours. However an estimate of tech research firms said a 2,750mAh battery was being used in the iPhone 6s Plus models.
Wayne Lam, analyst at IHS Markit Technology, said that a more powerful 3,500mAh battery was "one of the highest, if not the highest, capacity battery” ever in a phone, adding that the battery problem in the Galaxy Note 7 resulted from weak quality controls in manufacturing and not from an unsafe design.
Many analysts believe that making a phone more power efficient does not necessarily require packing more power.
This is explained by comparing Apple and Samsung, which seem to be differing in their strategy when it comes to battery capacity. While Apple seems to have been reengineering the hardware and software, which it manufactures itself, to make iPhones become more power efficient, Samsung has been increasing the power capacity of its phone batteries.
While Apple and Samsung are using built-in batteries for premium handsets, other phone makers are offering removable batteries allowing the customers to extend battery life by replacing batteries.