Samsung’s Battery Problems Could Affect Smartphone Supply Chain

After selling 2.5 million Galaxy Note 7 phablets in just two weeks, Samsung has issued a worldwide recall and temporary hold on sales because of battery overheating issues and danger of explosion.

Since two-thirds of those batteries are manufactured by Samsung SDI, a supplier to many of the top brands of portable computing devices, this development could disrupt the supply chain for new devices for the rest of the year. Samsung SDI is one of the suppliers listed by Apple in their 2016 Supplier List, published in February.

Image courtesy: Apple

Image courtesy: Apple

“Today, with the context and reality of globalization, organizations are finding that the supply chain is infinitely more complex than it was twenty or thirty years ago,” Jason Dea, director of product marketing at environmental health and safety (EHS) service provider Intelex told EBN in an interview. “Components and parts are coming from all over the world and from multiple vendors and third party contractors from each domain. By nature, it is a system that is very stressed.”

Since Sony released the first commercial lithium-ion battery in 1991 this technology has become the standard for most portable electronic devices, especially laptops, digital cameras, and smartphones.

Twenty years later, in 2011, lithium-ion batteries represented two-thirds of all portable rechargeable battery sales in Japan. According to a recent report by IDtechEX, the lithium-ion battery sector will be a $160 billion market by 2025. The Japanese and Koreans control the key technology and, with the Chinese, the production. The biggest increase will come in the growing electric vehicle market. Even modest electric vehicle penetration could triple lithium demand within 10 years.

Most high-end portable electronic devices use lithium cobalt oxide (LiCoO2) batteries. This chemistry is chosen because it provides the highest power/size/weight ratio, allowing small and light batteries to fuel power hungry devices such as smartphones and laptops. The drawback of lithium-Cobalt batteries is their relatively short lifespan (around 1,000 charging cycles) and low thermal stability.

If lithium-ion batteries are charged correctly –with chargers operating at or below the battery power rating– it is unlikely that overheating will occur. But most smartphone manufacturers have been using advanced charging technologies on their high-end models, such as Qualcomm’s Quick charge, or the new USB-C Fast Charging. These new technologies use smart power adaptors and special cables to charge the battery up to four times faster until it reaches about 80% of the charge, and then turn to slow charging for the remaining 20%. Fast charging technologies are extremely popular since most smartphone users are forced to charge their devices every day.

The problem comes when users charge those phones with other cables (especially with cheap USB-C ones) or different high-wattage power adaptors. Samsung argues that most of the heating issues reported by Galaxy Note 7 users could have been caused by using different cables or adaptors than the ones supplied with the phone.

Low quality, cheap adaptors and cables are not the only issue; the battery market, and its supply chain, is full of counterfeits. It is estimated that over 10% of the world's portable electronic devices are equipped with counterfeit batteries, especially low cost smartphones manufactured in China. In many of those cases the battery factory is supplied with defective or low quality cells, which are fitted into a new battery pack, which undergoes a quick charge-discharge test and is then shipped to the device manufacturer.

Instead of these quick tests, manufacturers should follow the standards set up by the IEEE, which require rigorous testing. For example, IEEE 1625 and 1725 norms for laptop and cell phone batteries, respectively, require mechanical tests on every pack design including shock, vibration, thermal shock, altitude, thermal exposure, and mould stress.

George Kerchner, the executive director of Portable Rechargeable Battery Association (PRBA), said last December that “counterfeit batteries remain a plague on our industry and a danger to consumers.”

The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 is not the first device recalled because of a risk of explosion of Lithium-Ion batteries. In March 2007 computer manufacturer Lenovo recalled over 200,000 laptop batteries at risk, and the same year, in August, Nokia recalled over 46 million smartphone batteries for overheating and potential explosion. In both cases those devices had user removable battery packs –allowing for a quick exchange of the battery–, something that most of the current devices don't. According to the Wall Street Journal, the massive recall of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 could cost the Korean giant over $900 million.

Apple is now introducing the iPhone 7, which features quick charging and a longest ever battery life. It is difficult to determine which manufacturers are currently providing Apple with the batteries for the iPhones. The iPhone batteries appear to have an identity crisis, according to popular repair site IFixIt. On the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6s the battery markings on the front show Apple South Asia (Thailand), and Apple Japan; on the back it says made in Huizhou, China.

Image courtesy: IFixIt

Image courtesy: IFixIt

Future generations of Li-Ion batteries will be structural, non-flammable and non-toxic, experts predict. Some manufacturers are also experimenting with solid-state batteries that are flexible, similarly to flexible circuits, which will allow device manufacturers to design new devices with different shapes and potentially flexible displays.

In the meantime, a technology issue can quickly become a customer relationship and branding nightmare. “The increasing load of the supply chain means that most organizations are looking at working with more outside sources versus internal people,” said Dea. “In reality, in these cases OEMs are actually outsourcing customer goodwill itself. From a consumers standpoint, they don't know where their phone manufacturer buys batteries and they don't care. They just know that that supplier failed them. Whether it is a bad batch of solder or an engineering diagram was upside down, the customer doesn't care. They feel betrayed and disappointed by the label. That brand, the company's reputation and the customer good will is effectively in the hands of the supply chain.”

What is clear is that the lithium-ion battery technology is here to stay, and the pressure on the supply chain to provide more cells, and safer batteries, will increase dramatically. OEMs and battery manufacturers need to be more vigilant of the supply chain for battery components and final units, otherwise issues such as Galaxy Note 7's could have serious consequences for customers and damage the brand image beyond repair.

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11 comments on “Samsung’s Battery Problems Could Affect Smartphone Supply Chain

  1. Judith Myerson
    September 12, 2016

    Complying with IEEE standards is a very good idea.  Keep in mind that lithium is a rare element found in some locations in South America.  Not only this keeps the price of lithium-ion batteries high but also makes the supply chain vulnerable to political instabilities (and overheating issues).

    I looked in research work IEEE has done on lithium atlernattives.  Sodium-ion recharageable battery is one possibility. Unlike lithium, sodium is plentiful.  But more research work has to be done for these sodium-ion batteries to reach parity with lithium-ion batteries.

    I am a long time IEEE member.


  2. Pablo Valerio
    September 12, 2016

    Thank you Judith,

    Lithium-Ion batteries will probably be ones powering most devices, and electric vehicles, for the next 20 years or so. There was an interesting piece by Jennifer Baljko, who is traveling in Asia now, about the lithium trade and the potential for countries such as Afghanistan:

    Afghanistan: Mineral-Rich, Conflict Torn Electronics Treasure Trove

    unfortunately lithium is becoming a rare commodity, and that can fuel some illegal trade which in turn be used by terrorists as a way to fund their organizations.

  3. Judith Myerson
    September 12, 2016

    Thank you Pablo,

    What you said about terrorists using illegal lithium trade to fund their organizations is so true.  The Afhgan Taliban's second largest source of revenue comes from taxing small mining operations in the areas under its control, as stated in this article. 

    The US Bet Half A Billion Dollars That Minimg Would Save the Afghan Economy.  It didn't.

    The good news is that US has been importing lithium it gets from own reserves in Nevada and from a NC plant. University of Wyoming researchers discovered the lithium while studying the idea of storing carbon dioxide underground in Wyoming 2014. They and other domestic options could eventually meet most, if not all, US demand for lithium-ion batteries.


  4. Kolina
    September 23, 2016

    Good writing, nice site

  5. PaulNagau
    September 28, 2016

    It is true that Samsung has a bit of bad luck and this industrial issue a dominoes effect, hope that the solution will be found quickly
    P Nagau

  6. ava1122
    October 2, 2016

    But the whole stock of company has been failed

  7. alexandre
    October 6, 2016

    Thanks for this article, 

    I had a samsung's battery problems there not long ago and I do not know if I was the only one in this case, now I understand better, thank you

  8. antoun-sehnaoui
    October 11, 2016

    Whether it happened to a Samsung smartphone or another brand – as you said customers want safer batteries and safer products in general. I even read somewhere I think that a supposedly repaired Galaxy Note 7 exploded. These kind of incidents can definitely damage the brand image if the issue is not resolved quickly. 

  9. hamidwali
    October 11, 2016

    i must share an experience with samsung note 7, find my comlete story here

  10. MrPhen375
    May 17, 2017

    It is so lucky for us that the Phen375 sales and distribution process does not require such troublesome mechanical tests on every pack design including shock, vibration, thermal shock, altitude, thermal exposure, and mould stress.

  11. inknik0400
    June 25, 2019

    HP has taken their preferred of the printer to the subsequent degree with the brand new range of PhotoSmart printers. 

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