How does a Problem Like the Note 7 Happen?

Those involved in the design and manufacturing of hardware products understand that one of the most important phases of the process is testing. That’s the point when all of the assumptions that have been made need to be validated. The only way to do that is to build hundreds or thousands of units and subject them to a battery of tests. Even then, you might still find problems not anticipated once devices get into the hands of thousands of customers but the goal is to be sure they are relatively minor.

The basic tests conducted include subjecting the products to a wide range of temperatures, humidity and physical abuse, including shock and vibration. The goal is to insure the product performs the same before and after and that the product remains intact and safe. Other tests include real life user testing and measurements to insure the product complies with regulatory requirements.

The testing typically takes several months to perform properly by a large group of quality and manufacturing engineers. Companies have rooms full of test equipment, including large ovens, shake tables, and fixtures that exercise buttons and switches millions of times to simulate actual use.

Yet, in the case of the Samsung Note7, it is puzzling they claimed they were able to identify the problem with their initial shipment, fix it, test it, and ship a half-million replacement units in just two weeks. That just doesn’t compute and apparently, that suspicion was verified by the failures of the second batch of units.

So now, it’s quite possible the problem might have been caused by another component that interacts with the battery, rather than the battery itself.

Testing of smartphones is particularly important because batteries pack a huge amount of energy into a small volume. They contain circuitry to prevent a run away condition should the battery or charging circuitry fail or go out of spec. The batteries are custom made to fit into the allotted space. Often, several companies or divisions are involved: the company building the battery cells, the company packaging the battery and adding the circuitry and connector, and the company putting the battery into the phone. But here’s another opportunity for error. The company doing the assembly may have assumed the battery integrator has performed sufficient testing. I’ve often found communications and clear division of responsibility among companies are often a weak point.

Yet in spite of a product passing all of this testing and having a sound design, there’s another thing to be worried about. It’s how well the product is manufactured on the assembly line. Most lines rely on the use of many workers that perform the assembly operations and not on automated assembly using robotic equipment. Each operator has instructions and tools to do a job that varies from attaching a circuit board assembly to the chassis, positioning and screwing the display in, or soldering a large component in place.

But it’s not uncommon for an operator to make a mistake: not tightening a screw sufficiently or shorting out a circuit. To minimize this, other operators are interspersed in the assembly line to test the partial assemblies, and then the completed product will go through some functional tests to insure it’s working.

But mistakes do happen. One electronic product I was involved in had a screw that was not tightened sufficiently. With little effort, it came loose and rattled around inside the product. That could be catastrophic because the metal screw could short out a battery or blow a circuit. In this instance, the line was building two thousand units a day on two 8-hour shifts and, by the time the problem was discovered, 8,000 units were effected. It was traced to one operator on one shift that failed to tighten the screw, even though she had a calibrated screwdriver that should have prevented this. So, one individual that might have been distracted or wasn’t sufficiently trained, caused a massive problem that required thousands of units to be opened, fixed and reassembled.

Imagine a factory building 100,000 units a day and you can see how a small error can have huge consequences. Much like the analogy of a butterfly flapping its wings and causing a hurricane halfway across the globe.

Published by

Phil Baker

Phil Baker is a product development expert, author, and journalist covering consumer technology. He is the co-author with Neil Young of the forthcoming book, “To Feel the Music,” and the author of “From Concept to Consumer.” He’s a former columnist for the San Diego Transcript, and founder of Techsperts, Inc. You can follow him at

242 thoughts on “How does a Problem Like the Note 7 Happen?”

  1. You’re being nice (and even then QC is supposed to sample finished goods to check they’re being built to spec). We also know
    – how Takata airbags happen: save $5, disregard multiple safety concerns/alerts, don’t test, don’t care about anything except that $5
    – how dieselgate and GM’s killer cars happen: save a few hundred bucks, ignore and silence internal proof about the issues for years/decades, and if you’re GM declare bankruptcy to suppress liability.

    We don’t know yet what happened, and maybe never will. Key questions are:
    1- is it a deficient 3rd-party part, or a deficient design
    2- did anyone know or suspect
    2b- how far up the decision chain did the knowledge go
    3- is there a pattern of issues w/ Samsung and/or the industry.
    4- what remedies/compensation are being set up.

    The fact that batteries catch fire made the issue very visible. I’d argue there’s a pattern in the industry though. Apple is having several issues right now, for example in the case of Touch Disease: it’s a design issue (badly secured ICs), they’ve known about it for a while (though not at launch probably; later batches had secured ICs), and are refusing any remedial action (no refund, no exchange, no fix).

    In a way, it’s lucky for consumers that the issue was very visible and happened quickly during the launch/hype phase.

    1. You really have to way to always bring in Apple issues in every
      conversation. You somehow make it a point that Samsung/Google issues are no big deal, and it is pretty common across the industry. In the same line you bring in Apple issues and complain no one is paying attention to Apple issues. Are you working for one of these companies?

      1. I’ll address the ad hominem, but first, as always, that’s a sneaky way to try and discredit a valid point:
        – QC issues are QC issues. Battery, antenna or touch-screen is just a matter of luck once you’re in a setup that allows issues to go through. At that point, how your treat your customers becomes as important as the fact that, like every other OEM, you sometimes goof up.
        – A bit of context and facts is always useful. gNote aren’t the only ones with issues, and they don’t explode they catch fire (small consolation, but still). The article could as validly be about antennagate, touch disease… Strangely, nothing about those here.

        As for the ad hominem: I don’t work nor own stock (outside of index funds) from any of those companies. That’s a lot more than you can say about some commenters here, especially the most rabid iFans. Yet strangely the corresponding question never comes up. Maybe you should ask it too ?

      2. Given Obas almost daily track record of lying, misrepresenting and being deliberately obtuse on numerous websites, about a company whose products he doesn’t use, the reasonable answer would be ‘Yes’.

          1. You lie and misrepresent quite often, this is common knowledge to anyone who reads even a handful of your comments. I can give you many examples. Here’s one, a month ago re: the iPhone 7 you said:

            “Was anyone complaining about the quality / convenience of the current jack + BT audio setup ? Which problem does this solve except shaving 0.5mm (if that) off iPhones ?”

            I pointed out that the iPhone 7 actually did not get thinner and in fact recent iPhones have gotten thicker. You had no reply.

            I’m sure you’ll claim it was just a mistake, but you make quite a few ‘mistakes’ in your comments.

            Just for fun, another example, three months ago you commented about screens saying:

            “I’ve read last year about a really high rate of iPhone with a broken screen (20% IIRC ?, in France).”

            I pointed out an Android OEM survey that pegged the rate of broken screens at about the same level or slightly higher. You were clearly trying to put across the notion that iPhones had a high rate of broken screens when the truth was they’re about the same as the rest of the industry. Again, you had no reply.

            I could go on and on with this, but I’m not going to bother.

  2. As you note in your article, a failure in QC is generally the failure of a system. It will be interesting to find out just how and why Samsung’s system failed.

  3. If it’s true that Samsung went ahead with the recall program without really figuring out what caused the combustion problem, then they have a serious problem with their corporate culture, values and procedures.

    That aside, there really is no foolproof testing procedure. No one can 100% predict where problems and defects can crop up if you’re dealing with new technology. It’s just impossible. That’s why I shy away from new drugs as much as possible if the old ones are good enough to treat the illness. It’s also why I have not yet stepped aboard a 787, though the first ones are about to reach 10 years in service and so far there have been no serious airframe failures so I expect to cross it off my no-fly list in a few years.

  4. Samsung should have FA’d by engineering (failure analyzed) those 35 failed units as quickly as possible. Looks like they just did a rudimentary supplier check according to the failed battery SN. It appears that the defect was found according to this Wikipedia article and it was a manufacturing fault causing shorting positive and negative electrodes.

    1. IIRC, early reports were that all burnt phones were using the same supplier’s batteries. Samsung might have taken the shortcut of just blacklisting that supplier and using their alternate one.

        1. Is it possible that Samsung is in charge of a battery design and the suppliers just make these? This would explain why both suppliers’ battery fail.

          1. This is not what the news outlets reported. Given that, my previous point still stands – the reason for the manufacturing failure can be pretty much anything unless properly diagnosed.

          2. Samsung makes the batteries. My experience aways required a third party integrator to buy the Samsung batteries and add circuitry and packaging. Samsung never wanted to provide the complete solution directly.

        2. Clearly, that first diagnostic was wrong. It seems they’re suspecting a phone-side short now, others mentioned a slightly squished+bent+unventilated battery… we’ll probably know for sure about the tech issue in a few weeks. Might be a combination, too.
          Not sure if/when we’ll know about the organizational+QC glitch.

          1. And no one really knows how prevalent the iPhone 6 touch problem is (except maybe Apple). It may have only affected a short run of phones which Apple prefers to handle out of warranty as they are reported. Certainly a recall is not warranted in the case of a problem that occurs a year or more out of the original (non-extended) warranty period for a limited number of phones.

          2. Reports ( ) are it’s 11% of all Apple Store repairs, which is a lot.

            And since it’s a design flaw that was later fixed Apple knows exactly which series are affected and could recall these selectively. Or at least offer an easy exchange for individual devices that develop the issue, it’s not a safety issue as for the gNote so just an easy exchange might be enough, though bad for customers who don’t exchange and then get the issue. At least a formal warranty extension for that specific issue ?

            In France (and I think, all of the EU), it’s a warranty issue anyway, since warranty law covers “hidden design flaws” (ie, when something breaks from normal use within its expected lifetime; which seems to be the case here) for 2 yrs *after they start manifesting*, not 2yrs after purchase. Apple will have to fix defective devices, they just could be gracious about it.

            My main takeaway is that phone OEMs, esp. not Apple, don’t have the right mindset to take over more “real-life” roles in our lives. A phone burning or becoming unusable is bad enough, a car or smart home or medical device is much worse. And getting told to take a hike about a fix/repair/exchange of the device isn’t an acceptable answer , let alone the non-device, real-life consequences of glitches.

          3. It’s 11% of Apple store repairs tells us almost nothing about the prevalence of the problem. What percentage of iPhones need any repair at an Apple store?

          4. Repairing the phone is a costly undertaking for the business. I estimate every time the phone gets back to the shop the business incurs $50+ charge disregarding a type of the repair (based on 12 years old Nokia numbers). I dream of the time when phones will last 5+ years and get serviced like cars, so every recall/fix gets serviced in a timely manner and I don’t mind paying related warranty costs upfront.

          5. I dream of the time phones will be throw-away. With a competent phone costing $150 right now (got a $300 Mi Max this summer, its less humongous 5.5″ sibling is $150, $180 for specs equivalent to mine: 4xA72, 3GB, 64GB, SD, day+ battery, good sound/pics/screen, touchID), that’s not too far ^^

            This being said, most issues are with drops, not design flaws nor parts failures. Drops are entirely foreseeable and should be designed for: plastics and a recessed screen. Oh well, that’s what $8 cases are for…

          6. Throw-away phones are not good for the environment. As for the drops, two words : phone insurance. This will also cover lost/stolen phones. The same as for the cars, so your phone is instantly replaceable ( not a throw-away though).

          7. You can throw it away in a recycle bin ^^

            I’m not sure I get the difference between throwing away and having exchanged under warranty, either. And the cost of the warranty alone is about the cost of a right-sized phone ?

          8. Yes, you can throw it away in a recycle bin (including batteries). The difference is in a used phone market. Now for example high end phones have difficulty selling in third world countries due to their high costs. It may change if there is a used phone market for high quality phones. And high quality phones will hold their value pretty well, so you wouldn’t need to spend that much on a new phone after owning a good phone. Even now with iPhone upgrade program you only need to spend around $300 to get a new phone every year. As for the cost of the warranty I expect to spend 5% of thé phone costs to get 5 year warranty. This is how much I pay for my new car extended warranty that covers it in years 3-5.

          9. Not quite the price for say, AppleCare+, which in France is 150€ out of 750€ for the 32GB iP7, so a cool 20%, plus 99€ deductible (30€ for screen damage), 2 repairs max, and that’s 2 yrs not 5. that includes all taxes and fees. Over 5 years, that’s 375€, ie 50% not 5%.

            Basically 2yrs of AppleCare+ by itself is as expensive as a good midrange phone, and if you actually use the warranty, the deductible makes it as expensive as an upper-midranger.

            Over 5 years, it’s as expensive as last year’s Android flagships.

            I’ll buy a midranger, tack on a $8 case, and be careful, thank you ;-p

          10. I do not buy AppleCare +. My credit card includes 2 years insurance for the damaged or stolen purchases (no deductible). I do use Genius Bar though and it is free. I dropped my iPhone several times (it is encased) and it did not suffer any damage. I agree though that a right bezel can help against drops.

          11. Samsung’s Protection Plus looks to be very similar to AppleCare re: mobile devices, two years of extended coverage including two incidents, and it costs exactly the same as AppleCare.

  5. Having worked around a number of disasters like the Pentium floating point and issues in new technology introductions on mobile processors to server timing synchonizations, I too am surprised that this is claimed to be simply a 0hr quality issue. The nature of the failure already indicates that this is unlikely. I’m surprised that there’s no separation of near term containment and root cause, and well as longer term corrective actions. Although there may be a number of factors being introduced, I generally agree with Mr. Baker in that the execution and response is lacking. I’m not, however, ready to start introducing the manufacturing process as a potential source. Indeed the process needs to be investigated for true root cause analysis, but, Samsung has an even bigger issue of “how to maintain or conduct operations” until root cause and corrective actions can be determined. As a former “fire-fighter” on complex products, I am definitely puzzled by Samsung’s process so far.

  6. Oh my goodness! an incredible article dude. Thank you However I’m experiencing problem with ur rss . Don’t know why Unable to subscribe to it. Is there anyone getting an identical rss problem? Anyone who is aware of kindly respond. Thnkx

  7. What’s Happening i’m new to this, I stumbledupon this I’ve discovered It positively useful and it hashelped me out loads. I am hoping to contribute & help different customerslike its helped me. Great job.

  8. Hey there! This is my first visit to your blog! We are a collection of volunteers andstarting a new initiative in a community in the same niche.Your blog provided us beneficial information to work on. You have donea marvellous job!

  9. whoah this blog is excellent i love studying your articles.Stay up the good work! You recognize, many people are looking aroundfor this info, you could help them greatly.

  10. hello!,I really like your writing so so much! percentage wecommunicate more approximately your article on AOL? I need an expert on this house to solvemy problem. Maybe that is you! Having a look aheadto look you.

  11. When I originally commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now each time a commentis added I get three e-mails with the same comment.Is there any way you can remove people from that service?Bless you!

  12. Hi, I do think this is an excellent blog. I stumbledupon it I may come back once again since i have book-marked it. Money and freedom is the best way to change, may you be rich and continue to guide other people.

  13. Thanks , I’ve just been searching for information about this topic for ages and yours is the greatest I have discovered till now. But, what about the bottom line? Are you sure about the source?

  14. I am extremely impressed with your writing skills and also with the layout on your blog.Is this a paid theme or did you modify it yourself?Anyway keep up the excellent quality writing, it’s rare tosee a nice blog like this one nowadays.

  15. Hello! Would you mind if I share your blog with my twitter group?There’s a lot of people that I think would really appreciate your content.Please let me know. Many thanks

  16. I am now not sure where you’re getting your info, however great topic. I needs to spend a while learning more or figuring out more. Thanks for great info I used to be in search of this information for my mission.

  17. Your style is really unique in comparison to other people I have read stuff from. I appreciate you for posting when you have the opportunity, Guess I’ll just bookmark this blog.

  18. I want to to thank you for this great read!! I certainly loved every bit of it.I’ve got you book marked to check out new stuff you post…my blog post –

  19. Hi there, just became alert to your blog through Google, and found that it’s truly informative.I’m going to watch out for brussels. I’ll appreciate if you continue this in future.A lot of people will be benefited from your writing.Cheers!

  20. Very nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wished to say that I have trulyenjoyed browsing your blog posts. In any case I’ll be subscribing to your feed and Ihope you write again very soon!Here is my blog – 플러스카지노 사이트

  21. What’s Happening i am new to this, I stumbled upon this I have found It absolutely helpful and it has helped me out loads. I’m hoping to give a contribution & aid other users like its aided me. Good job.

  22. I’ll right away seize your rss feed as I can’t in finding your email subscription hyperlink ornewsletter service. Do you have any? Kindly allow me realize so that I may just subscribe.Thanks.

  23. Hi my friend! I wish to say that this post is amazing, great written and include approximately all significant infos. I’d like to look extra posts like this.

  24. Very interesting details you have mentioned , thanks for posting . «The thing always happens that you really believe in and the belief in a thing makes it happen.» by Frank Lloyd Wright.

  25. เดี๋ยวนี้ผู้คนต่างมองหาหนทางการผลิตรายได้ที่ลงทุนน้อย UFABET คาสิโนออนไลน์ได้เก็บทุกเกมออนไลน์ที่ท่านพอใจไม่ว่าจะเป็นบาคาร่า พนันบอล สล็อต ยิงปลา รวมถึงเกมใหม่ๆที่พึ่งพิงเปิดตัวเข้าสู่วงการเกมออนไลน์ UFABET จ่ายจริง จ่ายไว ไม่มีขั้นต่ะ

  26. This is the perfect webpage for anyone who really wants to understand this topic.
    You understand a whole lot its almost tough to argue with you (not that I personally
    will need to…HaHa). You definitely put a brand new spin on a subject
    which has been discussed for ages. Great stuff, just excellent!

  27. SightCare is a powerful formula that supports healthy eyes the natural way. It is specifically designed for both men and women who are suffering from poor eyesight.

  28. GlucoTrust 75% off for sale. GlucoTrust is a dietary supplement that has been designed to support healthy blood sugar levels and promote weight loss in a natural way.

  29. Quietum Plus is a 100% natural supplement designed to address ear ringing and other hearing issues. This formula uses only the best in class and natural ingredients to achieve desired results.

  30. PuraVive is a natural supplement that supports weight loss naturally. The supplement is created using the secrets of weight loss straight from Hollywood.

  31. Are you tired of dealing with brittle nails and dry, irritated skin? Look no further than Kerassentials, the revolutionary formula for maintaining the health of your nails and skin.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *