How the Samsung Note Failed

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Most industry accidents usually go ignored, but there comes a time where a corporation makes a mistake or gaffe so big, it cannot be disregarded. As long as industrialization has been the norm, this has been the case. The Titanic’s lack of lifeboats called for extreme maritime reform, and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire resulted in new legislation and safety procedures for factory owners.

While not directly causing any deaths (yet), the failure of the new Samsung Galaxy Note 7 left a black mark on Samsung’s record. Specifically, the recently released Note 7 had a tendency to overheat and explode, a bug that most phone users have trouble overlooking. The problem got so bad and dangerous that Samsung was forced to recall the line of phones from consumers.

Reports circulated worldwide regarding the defective phone, with over a hundred cases of defective phones in the U.S. alone. Samsung originally tried to exchange defective Note 7s for a newer model, but these encountered the same exploding problem. The notoriousness of the Note actually got so bad that the phones are no longer allowed on U.S. flights, as they pose a serious safety risk.

One of the big questions from all this is how this happened. The first part to deciphering this mystery is to examine the evidence and determine what caused the phones to fail. The main culprit is the lithium ion battery. Lithium ion batteries are used in many electronics today, and are usually a reliable source of energy for mobile devices. They are favored because they are rechargeable and lose their charge slower than traditional batteries.

Lithium, however, is a very reactive element, and without any check, can quickly overwork a battery causing it to overheat and explode. This can be caused in several different ways, from improper programming to heat to damage from being dropped. In the Samsung Note’s case, it appears to be due to an error on the manufacturer’s part.

Batteries are made up of several parts, including the cathode where the energy is stored, and the anode, from which the energy leaves the device. In a working battery, energy flows from the cathode, through electrolytes, to the anode, and out to the device it powers. The anode and the cathode need to remain separated, or all the energy being transferred to the anode will just bounce back and forth like a high-energy game of ping pong. And when enough energy is built up, it means disaster. This was the problem with the Note 7–a manufacturing error resulted in the anode and cathode of the battery touching.

This answers how, but there’s still the question of why this happened. While I do believe that this was an honest oversight on Samsung’s part, the fact of the matter is that Samsung probably didn’t look too hard at their battery in order to rush out a new product to compete with Apple. The phone war is a lot like the Cold War in that two great powers (in this case Samsung and Apple) are locked in an arms race looking to produce better and better products than their competitor. Samsung released the Note around the same time as Apple released its new iPhone, and hoping to present the public with a more innovative device, the company cut corners to meet the deadline.

Samsung could well learn a lesson from it’s hubris, and in the upcoming months we’ll see how the company plans to win back the favor of the public. For now, all Samsung can do is wait out the storm and figure out a way to dispose of all the faulty devices–which, by the way, won’t be easy either.