Samsung's design concept choked Note 7 batteries, claim experts

A design manufacturing service provider has offered a look at what caused Samsung's Galaxy Note 7 handsets to heat up and explode.

Instrumental claims that Samsung's poor design concept for the Galaxy Note 7 may have contributed to the handsets either heating up or exploding.

When the Galaxy Note 7 arrived, Samsung termed it the slimmest Note device ever, featuring a large battery, beautiful curved screen and boasting a performance unmatched by any other device in the genre. While what happened afterwards was really unfortunate, Instrumental, a service provider which offers specialised services for hardware manufacturing, says the Samsung had a big part to play in what happened to the Galaxy Note 7.

"These theories (about causes for Galaxy Note 7 fires) all suggest a battery part-level issue, likely due to Samsung pushing the manufacturing parameters a little too far in order to make the highest capacity battery in the smallest package.  But, if it was only a battery part issue and could have been salvaged by a re-spin of the battery, why cancel the product line and cede several quarters of revenue to competitors?  We believe that there was more in play: that there was a fundamental problem with the design of the phone itself," said Anna Shedletsky, hardware engineer at Instrumental.

Wondering why the Note 7 fizzled and popped? Samsung might reveal soon

Anna, along with Sam (another engineer), conducted a teardown of the Galaxy Note 7 with a fire extinguisher placed nearby. The first observation they made was that the Note 7 battery was a flattened “jelly-roll” which was compressed by the handset's design even during normal operations! A smartphone battery is normally designed in a way to ensure that it's positive and negative layers do not come into contact and are separated using electrolytes. In the Galaxy Note 7's case, they discovered that the separator layers were so thin "due to aggressive manufacturing parameters" that even a normal mechanical swell of the battery or some pressure from the back cover would cause the positive and layers to come in contact, resulting in overheating and in some cases, explosions.

Anna and Sam also noted that Samsung's engineers had placed the Galaxy Note 7 battery inside a costly CNC-machined pocket to ensure that it wasn't touched by other internal components. This was done to ensure maximum capacity along with adequate protection, but they questioned whether Samsung could validate the new design concept through rigorous testing that often last a year. "It’s possible that Samsung’s innovative battery manufacturing process was changing throughout development, and that the newest versions of the batteries weren’t tested with the same rigor as the first samples," they said.

This observation checks out with some reports earlier this year which claimed that Samsung used in-house labs to test Galaxy Note 7 batteries instead of third party labs approved by CTIA in the United States. Even though Samsung's in-house lab has been approved by the CTIA, the reports questioned if after 96 reports of overheating batteries, 13 reports of them burning up and another 47 of them causing property damage, questions could be raised about the quality of testing done in the first place.

Samsung's haste in launching Galaxy Note 7 may have resulted in battery woes

A report in Bloomberg also explained how Samsung shifted the initial launch date of the Galaxy Note 7 from September to mid-August and then to August 3. Bloomberg said that Samsung's employees worked overtime and slept at their desks to save time and to ensure that the phablets could reach the world a month before Apple's iPhone 7 Plus did. It also added that suppliers were put under intense pressure as Samsung changed the specifications of the upcoming phablet time and again. We believe a lack of initial planning and too much haste resulted in batteries not working too well with the final version of the handsets.

After the battery fiasco became too much for the company to handle, the Chairman of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission stated that batteries in Galaxy Note 7 handsets short-circuited as they were too big for their compartments and the lack of space caused undue pressure during charging. We wonder if the batteries would have cleared stringent testing had they been subjected to testing at any of the 28 labs approved by the CTIA rather than being tested in-house by Samsung. It will also be interesting to see if Samsung will follow the same procedure with its upcoming phones like the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8 Edge which may release in February next year.

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