Samsung must now pick up and move on from the Galaxy Note 7 debacle, but we can learn a lot about the company through its recent investigation.
The Galaxy Note 7 may be dead, but the experience of the incident has clearly reverberated throughout the company, from headquarters in Korea to much smaller markets like Canada. A press conference early Monday morning in Seoul began solemnly, as Samsung's president of mobile, DJ Koh, took responsibility for the company's recent troubles.
"I deeply apologize to all of our customers, carriers, retail and distribution partners, and all of our business partners," he said. "We thank you for your patience and continuous support. We believe that as a first step to regain your trust, it is important to provide you with a thorough understanding of the cause of the Galaxy Note 7 incident and to implement a comprehensive plan to take preventative measures."
Samsung went into great, almost excruciating detail of the Note 7's demise, covering the ways in which the batteries inside the Note 7 were at fault, and that there was nothing inherent to the phone's design that would cause fires in the chassis. Koh explained that over 200,000 phones were tested along with 30,000 individual batteries, in a variety of conditions, to rule out whether things like water ingress or the company's fast charging or wireless charging implementations contributed to the prevalence of fire. None of it did.
Samsung placed blame solely on the batteries themselves.
Instead, Samsung placed blame solely on the batteries themselves, though neither Koh nor Paul Brannen, VP of Samsung Canada's mobile division, would divulge the names of, nor blame directly, the suppliers. "As much as the fault is with the batteries, we provide the specs of the batteries we want them to build. They make quality batteries, not just for us, for millions of units and thousands of devices throughout this industry, and the issue was for the batteries specifically built for the Note 7," said Brannen in an interview with Android Central Sunday night. Samsung didn't build the defective batteries, but it put the suppliers in a position to do so.
This simultaneous acceptance and diffusing of responsibility forms the basis of Samsung's strategy on how to move forward. Almost immediately after Koh showed his introductory statement, full of remorse and promise to improve, he launched into what would become an hour-long, jargon-heavy performance meant as much to reassure the public as to parse the information itself. Indeed, anyone without a chemical or electrical engineering degree may have had a difficult time digesting the notion that Battery A, manufactured by Samsung SDI, "had a combination of deformation at the upper corners + thin separator + repeating mechanical stresses due to cycling, causing higher possibility of separator damage leading to an ISC between aluminum and copper foil at the corner."
The reality is likely more subtle — that institutional decisions to push the Note 7 to include a larger battery in a smaller frame forced both suppliers of the Lithium Ion cells to make mistakes, skip essential steps, and eschew the regular volume of quality testing that the mobile industry requires.
The takeaway was that, by testing as many units as it did, and by spending as much time and money as necessary to unearth the problem, including the hiring of three independent organizations that built their own reports, the public would feel sufficiently placated and free to look towards the company's future. What neither Koh nor Brannen would acknowledge was the sheer unlikeliness of having two sets of batteries from different suppliers with defects significant enough to cause fire and injury. Instead, the four groups involved in testing the Note 7 came to the same conclusion: The boundaries of tech were pushed too far, and mistakes were made.
"Battery A, which was in the Canadian [and U.S.] markets first, had the 'pouch issue' (deformation at the upper corners)," said Brannen, "which led us to believe that, by working with [independent testing company] Exponent, when Battery B didn't have that issue, it would be safe." But Battery B, he acknowledged, had a "totally unrelated" issue to Battery A.
The takeaway was that, by testing as many units as it did, and by spending as much time and money as necessary to unearth the problem, the public would feel sufficiently placated.
Based on findings from Exponent, UL, and TÜ V Rheinland, Battery B, built by Amperex, was found to have "welding defects" from production and was made "without protective tape over the positive electrode tab, increasing the likelihood of an internal cell fault," leading to what Brannen called a "worst case scenario for us as a manufacturer."
From a bird's-eye view, Samsung has done its due diligence; it has successfully explained the cause of the fires and sufficiently, through its eight-point battery safety check, promised that such an issue will never occur again. But Brannen believes that Samsung can actually stand taller from this, emerging as a positive corporate citizen pushing for improved quality assurance and more stringent testing of all products that use Lithium Ion batteries.
"If you come back and look at what the root cause was of the Note 7, it has nothing to do with the design, software, or usability. It was the battery, end of story. So as a result, we realized we need to place a higher level of scrutiny on what we do from a device standpoint," said Brannen.
Both UL and Exponent wrote extensively on what were the "likely" causes for the battery failures, but for many, the explanations will remain unsatisfying.
"But we also created an advisory board that relates to the design of batteries, because it's important from a Samsung perspective that we start to share this with the industry — the entire industry — because Lithium Ion batteries are extremely powerful tools, but they can also be extremely dangerous if not designed, built, and implemented in the right way."
Samsung won't have to wait long to begin to test that theory. Brannen said the company just recently had "one of [its] best fourth quarters in many years," and that the Galaxy S7 and S7 edge are "still incredibly popular products."
Trying to prove that the new regimen of product testing will satisfy customers won't be an easy task, but "as we add new products to the portfolio in the next 90 days, we'll continue to build on that momentum," he said, referring to the Galaxy S8, now expected for early April.
The major issue with Samsung's Note 7 findings is that because of the scale of such an enterprise, there are so many variables at play. Both UL and Exponent wrote extensively on what were the "likely" causes for the battery failures, but for many the explanations will remain unsatisfying. The reality is likely more subtle — that institutional decisions to push the Note 7 to include a larger battery in a smaller frame forced both suppliers of the Lithium Ion cells to make mistakes, skip essential steps, and eschew the regular volume of quality testing that the mobile industry requires.
While it's commendable that Samsung has now, after all of its admitted foibles, stepped up to play the role of the Good Citizen, we can't overlook the contribution of hubris borne of fierce competitiveness that fuelled this debacle in the first place.
Then again, we thought the Galaxy Note line was damaged beyond repair, and we were proven fools. Samsung has done everything it possibly could to be as open and transparent as possible about what happened with the Note 7, so let's hope good things emerge from these ashes.