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The dangers of rushing innovation

The problems Samsung has encountered with its Galaxy Note 7 have led Billy MacInnes to muse over the risks of rushing innovation

“The design and validation process for a new product is challenging for everyone. In this case, Samsung took a deliberate step towards danger, and their existing test infrastructure and design validation process failed them. They shipped a dangerous product.” – Anna Shedletsky, Aggressive design caused Samsung Galaxy Note 7 battery explosions.

The report by Instrumental into the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 debacle makes for interesting reading because it demonstrates how the relentless push for innovation in the technology industry can often have unforeseen (and very damaging) consequences. In the smartphone space, for example, much innovation is focused around thinness and battery life. According to Instrumental, this appears to have been a major contributor to making the Galaxy Note 7 such a dangerous device.

As Shedletsky notes: “What’s interesting is that there is evidence in the design of an intellectual tension between safety and pushing the boundaries…Looking at the design, Samsung engineers were clearly trying to balance the risk of a super-aggressive manufacturing process to maximise capacity, while attempting to protect it internally.”

They quite clearly failed. According to the engineers at Instrumental, instead of leaving 10% ceiling above the battery to account for mechanical swelling of the lithium battery, Samsung had left none. Because the battery was compressed, the swelling could have been enough to squeeze the thin polymer separator between the positive and negative layers of the battery “to a point where the positive and negative layers can touch, causing the battery to explode”. The battery was 5.2mm deep so, for the sake of 0.5mm, the engineers at Samsung broke “a basic rule” which Shedletsky argues “must have been intentional”.

Instrumental believes that a smaller battery using standard manufacturing parameters would have solved the explosion issue and the swell issue.  The problem was that “a smaller battery would have reduced the system’s battery life below the level of its predecessor, the Note 5, as well as its biggest competitor, the iPhone 7 Plus”.

According to some estimates, the Galaxy Note 7 recall could cost Samsung as much as $17bn. To put it into perspective, that’s more than $3bn for every 0.1mm the engineers didn’t leave as a ceiling for the battery.

In their efforts to make the Note 7 thinner and to maintain or lengthen its battery life, Samsung’s engineers made some very poor choices. In doing so, they unintentionally ensured the Galaxy Note 7 fell below the level of the product it succeeded (if that’s the right word), the Note 5 and its biggest competitor, the iPhone 7 Plus. Worse still, the damage to Samsung’s brand and reputation has been pronounced.

And all for the want of 0.5mm of space – the size of a grain of medium sand. William Blake once wrote:

“To see a World in a grain of sand,

And a Heaven in a wild flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour…”

But according to Instrumental, Samsung didn’t even see the grain of sand. And because it didn’t, very few would dare to hold a Galaxy Note 7 in the palm of their hand.

This was last published in December 2016

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