Samsung Explains Why The Galaxy Note7 Kept Exploding

Image: Samsung

It's time. After more than four months, the world's largest smartphone manufacturer is ready to reveal the exact reason that the Galaxy Note7 — its most advanced smartphone ever, and the year's strongest competitor to Apple's iPhone 7 — was recalled.

How To Watch Samsung's Galaxy Note7 Recall Press Conference

11:30AM: Hi everyone! If you're just tuning in, you've got a solid half hour to wait before the actual conference gets underway. The livestream is right here if you want to open it in another tab and watch along.

11:45AM: T-minus 15 minutes, ladies and gentlemen. The stream is up and running — there's even a backup stream in case the original dies. It's pretty clear that Samsung wants this press conference to go off without a hitch.

11:55AM: With five minutes to go, it's worth diving into the numbers just for a bit of context. In the few short weeks between the phone's original launch on August 19 and when sales were halted on September 5, Samsung sold 51,060 Note7s in Australia. Of those 51,060, around 48,500 were returned to the company through the second recall program.

That's a recall rate of around 95 per cent, far outstripping the average Aussie recall rate (for any consumer product, from cars to homewares to washing machines) of 56 per cent.

The Note7 recall is expected to cost Samsung in the region of $3.4 billion in the six months after it was instituted. There's no value placed on the company's ongoing Galaxy brand performance, though, or the damage that has been done to the goodwill of loyal customers — that'll take years to pan out.

12:00PM: OK, we're off and running. The livestream is up, and we're just running through some housekeeping before the event itself kicks off.

12:02PM: Samsung's DJ Koh, president of the mobile business division, is up on stage to officiate the event.

"I deeply apologise to all our customers... and all of our business partners."

"We have invested all our efforts and substantial resources over the past several months... in order to fully investigate the issue. We will be sharing the results of our investigation today."

Koh is currently giving a brief background of the Note7's lifeline. Two weeks between the phone's initial launch and its first recall. "The device was discontinued globally on October 11th." That's the date of the second and final recall, after phones kept exploding.

96 per cent of about 3 million devices sold and activated have been returned. "We are grateful to Note7 owners... for their help to expedite this process and achieve this exceptional return rate."

"We have examined every aspect of the device... including hardware, software, assembly, quality assurance and logistics... were reviewed in detail. To ensure that we encouraged a thorough investigation."

12:07PM: "We built a large scale charge and discharge test facility, where we were able to replicate the incidents from market, and complete a detailed analysis."

Samsung also hired "respected industry analysts" to independently verify their results. They'll be speaking in a few minutes.

Was fast charging or wireless charging to blame for any of the battery fires? Was it water resistance? Samsung conducted repeated charge and discharge tests with all three of these criteria put to the test — including charging with the back glass battery cover off — in its charge facility.

The same is true of Samsung's iris charging tech and the USB Type-C port.

Samsung also ran tests on preloaded and downloaded third-party apps, to test whether software was to blame.

"None of these tests demonstrated an abnormality or correlation to the reported incidents."

Logistics was also put to the test, including tracking the handling of all parts delivered — including the batteries — "in an effort to determine whether there were contributing factors."

"Although none of these... presented an abnormality, we have nontheless added additional [steps to improve processes]."

12:11PM: Thousands of complete Note7 devices and batteries were subjected to "repeated charge and discharge tests."

Both fully assembled devices and batteries exhibited the same incidence of failure rate of devices in the field.

"This indicated that the incidents were caused by the battery cells themselves."

Both Battery A from the first recall and Battery B from the second recall had a failure, but different incidents.

"Incorrect positioning of the negative electrode tip" was responsible for the failures on Battery A, which caused the initial fires and recall.

"Melted copper on negative electrode" on Battery B had caused a short circuit in that area of the battery.

An internal short circuit as a result of abnormally high welding bars — from the ultrasonic battery building process — was what caused the second battery's continued issues.

Some batteries were also missing insulation tape.

12:15PM: UL is an "independent science and safety organisation", and conducted its own analysis of the Note7 to determine the issue. The same is true of US-based Exponent, which did a "detailed analysis" of hardware and software. The third independent organisation was TUV Rheinland.

The first independent business to present its findings is UL's Sajeev Jesudas. "Our mission is to promote safe... living and working environments. We have deep experience with lithium ion batteries."

UL's knowledge includes forensic levels of investigation into battery failures.

UL tore down and examined 10 damaged Note7 devices with "Company A" batteries, and 110 new Company A batteries, "to identify battery issues."

There were signs of internal short circuits on the upper right cells of the batteries.

"Multiple contributing factors" were responsible for the Note7's battery failures, says UL.

The higher energy density of the Note7's battery — 3500mAh — could have contributed to the severity of each incident.

UL's investigation is ongoing into why the deformation of the Note7 batteries from Company A — one of the two major suppliers to Samsung — happened in the first place.

Company B, responsible for the replacement batteries, had its batteries and damaged Samsung Note7 devices examined by UL including 10 teardowns and 40 new batteries being disassembled.

Multiple short circuits across the battery and missing insulation tape on some cells contributed to those Company B battery failures.

The Note7's battery drain from Company B met Samsung's specifications, including maximum temperature, cell voltage and discharge and charge rate.

Uneven charge across the battery, internal short circuit, and sharp edges of welding joins within the Company B battery were partly responsible for the "higher possibility of separator puncture" — the kind of thing that short circuits within battery cells.

12:24PM: Higher energy density and thinner cells are, basically, what's to blame for Samsung's Note7 issues. Thinner phones with higher capacity batteries make compromises, and this was one.

12:25PM: Dr Kevin White is now up on stage to give his presentation. He's the Principal Scientist from Exponent in the US.

"Two distinctly different failure modes" for each of the Note7's batteries — that's the trend we're seeing in this press conference.

"A suite of destructive and non-destructive tests on devices returned from the field... and new devices supplied by Samsung. The proposed root causes are consistent with the... independent and impartial analysis."

We're getting an explainer from Exponent on how batteries are assembled, and how interaction of negative and positive electrodes at any point throughout the lithium-ion cell itself.

For Company A: "The most likely root cause was determined to unintended damage to the negative electrode windings consistently in the corner of the cell closest to the negative tab."

For Company B, the issue was also with the battery, but "a new and distinctly different defect that was not present in the initial investigation." These cells were the ones manufactured after Exponent's initial investigation.

Electrode bending — physical damage to the battery — caused damage to the negative electrode and its lithium plating, causing the short circuit.

"Remember that all these failures occurred very early in the life of the device."

Welding defaults in some incident cells were found to bridge the distance to the negative element, causing short circuits.

Dr White: "In some batteries tested, a protective layer [was not installed], likely due to an error in the manufacturing process. In those cases, the incidence of short circuit was higher."

"Poor welding causes tall welding defects. Normal swelling forces those welds into the negative electrode. During high states of charge, the heating of the cell causes thermal runaway." And that's the ball game, folks.

White is now saying that the battery system, and its electronic safety measures to address issues like short circuits, met or exceeded industry standards, and that Samsung's electronics did not contribute to the failure of either Company A or Company B's battery cells.

12:36PM: Holger Kunz from TUV Rheinland is now on stage to give that company's analysis of the battery issues.

TUV's role was to investigate the logistics system — processes of the China and Vietnam battery production lines, and the road transport system from China to Vietnam for those batteries during the devices' final assembly, packaging and distribution.

TUV Rheinland's testing and factory assessment ran from November to December, and "showed no detection of relevant weaknesses" in the battery production or transport process.

Two pallets of the batteries with instruments measuring acceleration, strain, temperature and humidity were shipped between China and Vietnam, and additional tests for any transport condition — any time, any season of the year — were also run.

The batteries passed those tests, suggesting that logistics were not the issue.

A total of 650 batteries from the transport and off the production line were tested by TUV Rheinland and passed normal environment and abuse testing.

"No specific detection of weakness, concern or obvious danger" from Samsung's processes and workstation in the Vietnam and main Korean assembly line was detected by Samsung, and the tested batteries passed "relevant safety requirements" after road transport.

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12:43PM: Samsung's DJ Koh is back on stage to talk about the company's preventative measures going forward.

"Smartphone designs have become more compact, and battery usage has increased."

"It was important to support various functionalities, so high battery capacity was among the most important features during product planning."

"A higher capacity of 3500mAh [was used in the Note7], in a more compact form than previous Note models. New designs and manufacturing designs and technologies were used."

"We are taking responsibility for our failure."

Samsung is committed to quality and safety, DJ Koh tells the audience.

"Comprehensive preventative measures" have been implemented, says Koh, including internal measures to enhance quality assurance and quality control.

"We are building upon our existing quality assurance.. with the addition of teams that are exclusively dedicated to focus on each core component of the device, includign the active re

"We have formed a battery advisory group... to ensure we have an objective review of device safety." The advisory group has consulted with Samsung on the Note7, and will continue on future devices.

12:49PM: The group includes professor of chemistry Dr Clare Grey from the University of Cambridge, materials science and engineering professor Dr Gerbrand Ceder from UC Berkeley, and materials science and engineering professor Dr Yi Cui from Stanford, as well as and Dr Toru Amazutsumi, Ph.D from Amaz Techno-Consultant.

An 8-point battery safety check will include X-ray and random disassembly at the manufacturers, with additional inspections along the way to assembly.

Large-scale charge and discharge testing will be conducted on batteries — including two weeks of continuous use in a "full range of customer scenarios".

"We have adopted and provided preventative measures, with improved safety standards for the battery."

"A new hardware design means more space around the battery to accommodate a new bracket design to protect against force, even when the device is dropped."

We hope this case will serve as an opportunity to improve the safety of lithium ion batteries, not only for us but for the entire industry."

Samsung says it is reviewing its plans to share its battery safety procedures with industry standard bodies.

"It has been a challenging period for Samsung... and the customers that have trusted us to provide them with safe products."

Samsung takes great pride in its ability to listen, learn and improve, it says. "Today, more than ever, we are committed to earning the trust of our customers, through innovation that redefines what is possible in safety."

12:55PM: Samsung's DJ Koh and the independent experts are now taking questions from the audience.

12:57PM: It appears that Samsung has cut the live feed of its press conference at the end of Koh's speech, rather than broadcasting the panel's responses to press questions.

Thanks for reading!




Now read: Here's a timeline of the short life and long death of the Galaxy Note7, as it happened in the late months of 2016.

Samsung's Galaxy Note7 Recall: The Timeline

The Samsung Galaxy Note7 was unveiled to the world at an event in New York City on August 3. It went on sale to customers in Australia on August 19. It was praised for its excellent design and futuristic iris scanning biometrics.

Sales of the phone were suspended due to battery issues causing devices to overheat and catch fire on September 2, first reported by Gizmodo Australia. That was escalated to a full recall a few days later on September 5.

Samsung offered customers the choice of a replacement phone (with a temporary loaner handset in the interim), a refund or exchange to a similar Samsung phone like the S7 Edge, as well as around $250 in incentives which varied depending on the telco or retail store the Note7 was purchased through.

Stock of replacement Galaxy Note7s — with the battery issue apparently fixed — arrived in Australia on September 20. Customers who had returned their phone for an exchange were contacted and told they would receive trouble-free units.

That stock was distributed to Samsung's customers and carrier partners, until ongoing battery issues and fires with replacement phones forced a second halt of sales and replacements.

Samsung Australia repeatedly told customers to switch off both original and replacement Galaxy Note7 phones, and to return them to their place of purchase. he company limited the state of charge of phone batteries to 60 per cent, disabled Gear VR support, and cut it off from Australian mobile networks.

Currently, over 95 per cent of Samsung Galaxy Note7s have been returned to Samsung in Australia. Approximately 2500 phones are still at large. This recall rate is far ahead of the average Australian recall return rate, which is around 56 per cent according to a 2013 statement by longtime ACCC chairman Rod Sims.

Samsung's 23 January press conference is likely to be the last official conference on the matter, but the issues with the Note7 will continue to affect Samsung's public perception for some time. The impact of the Note7 recall is expected to cost Samsung at least $3.4 billion in the Q4 2016 and Q1 2017 quarters.

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