Lenovo Investigates Laptop Fire; Analysts Say Recall Likely

 
 
By Scott Ferguson  |  Posted 2006-09-22
 
 
 

Lenovo Investigates Laptop Fire; Analysts Say Recall Likely


Lenovo Group has experienced a single notebook battery pack failure similar to those seen recently by Apple Computer and Dell, leading analysts to believe it too may have to issue a battery pack recall.

The battery pack, housed inside an IBM ThinkPad T43, caught fire at Los Angeles International Airport earlier this month, Lenovo officials in Raleigh, N.C., confirmed. Lenovo, which purchased IBMs PC group in May 2005, obtained the LAX ThinkPad, and the early stages of an investigation by its engineers in Yamato, Japan, have determined that the pack contained Sony battery cells of the same type that have been involved in overheating incidents and fires reported by Dell and Apple, Ray Gorman, a Lenovo spokesperson, told eWEEK.

Given that Lenovo is still investigating the incident, it is too soon to say what its next move will be, Gorman said.

But, while the chances of a notebook battery pack overheating or catching fire due to a battery problem—improperly manufactured lithium-ion battery cells produced by Sony were at the root of the recall of 4.1 million battery by Dell on Aug. 14 and the recall of 1.8 million battery packs by Apple on Aug. 24—are slim, analysts believe that Lenovo may have no choice given that it appears to have experienced a similar problem to that of Dell and Apple.

What are PC makers doing to try to improve battery cell safety? Click here to read more.

"Extreme cases of battery failures such as this are very rare in Lenovo notebooks," Gorman said. However, he added: "Our number one concern is public safety. Weve launched an investigation. We will take whatever measures necessary to serve the interest of our customers and public safety."

Right now, Lenovo "is falling right in the statistical norm. If Dell had 4 million [Sony-cell-based battery packs] ship over a two-year period and you map Lenovo shipments over the same period…youd come up with one or two failures in the same period," said Roger Kay, president of EndPoint Technologies Associates, in Wayland, Mass.

But, "the implication is that [Lenovo] would be just as vulnerable," Kay said. "The implication is that theyve got to do a recall."

Dell and Apple both basically said they chose to err on the side of caution when recalling their battery packs with Sony-made cells. Dell, for its part, said it had received only six reports of "incidents" with battery packs in the United States and a handful more outside of the country.

"Having to admit youve got a problem right at high-selling season [the end of the third calendar quarter and during the fourth calendar quarter] is not much fun," Kay said. "But something like this, which is very high visible, makes it unavoidable. It would be hard not to [issue the recall]."

Following the Dell recall, Lenovo and Hewlett-Packard each said that while they used Sony battery cells, they were confident that they would avoid similar problems because their designs use different charging and battery protection schemes.

What is Dell doing to help customers with its battery recall? Click here to read more.

However, Kay said that they could not be 100 percent certain that no problems would arise, particularly because failures with the Sony cells were hard to replicate.

"The issue was…that no one could replicate the failures," Kay said. "The failures were so rare that even when [company engineers] were tying to make them happen, they werent able to on a regular basis."

Next Page: Confluence of events leads to fires.

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Indeed, a confluence of events must happen to cause a failure that leads to overheating or fire, according to an explanation issued by Dell.

Lithium-ion cells look like a can of soup on the outside. But inside they look sort of like a jelly roll. Two strips of coated metal foil are separated by an insulating layer and wound up in a coil. The coil is placed in a metal can, filled with an electrolyte solution, and sealed.

"Cells can potentially fail if they get very hot due to external heating or excessive current flow, if they are overcharged, or if a short-circuit occurs between layers of the coil. This last problem was what led to the recall: metal particles, contamination from the manufacturing process, are in very rare cases causing a short-circuit in the cell that leads to a fire," Forrest Norrod, Dells vice president of engineering, wrote in an Aug. 22 posting in Dells Direct2Dell blog.

But, given the number of variables involved, "when anybody asserted that they didnt have the problem….then there was an unproven assertion," Kay said.

Still, not all ThinkPads—nor Dell or Apple notebooks—use battery cells from Sony. ThinkPads also come with batteries from companies such as Sanyo. Sony is the second-largest battery cell maker in the world, behind Sanyo.

Thus any action taken by Lenovo could be relatively limited in scope.

Still, the potential for an additional recall shouldnt come as a major surprise, said Richard Shim, an analyst at IDC, in San Mateo, Calif.

Shim said he estimates that about 1 million of the potentially problematic Sony-made cells are still in circulation.

Given that major computer makers tend to buy from the same suppliers, "If [a problem] hits one of these guys, chances are its going to hit the other guys too," he said.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission, in Washington, which worked with both Apple and Dell, declined on Aug. 24 to comment on the possibility of future battery recalls involving Sony or another computer maker.

However, Sony, in a statement issued on the same day, said it did not anticipate any additional recalls.

"We believe the issue has been addressed to the satisfaction of our customers," Sony said in the Aug. 24 statement.

Sony also said in a statement that it has introduced safeguards into its battery manufacturing process to address the contamination problem seen by Apple and Dell and to provide a greater level of safety and security.

The battery pack recalls have had some effects. Airlines including Virgin Atlantic have issued restrictions against passengers using their Dell or Apple notebooks, unless the batteries in their machines have been checked by cabin crew. Passengers with machines whose batteries are affected by recalls can operate them only sans battery packs on flights, if power outlets are available, the airlines Web site says.

But the potential for additional recalls isnt likely to slow down the red-hot notebook market.

Stephen Baker, an analyst with the NPD Group, of Purchase, N.Y., believes that any battery recall will not have long-lasting impact on either the notebook market itself or Lenovo.

Lenovo "mostly sells to enterprises and businesses and those companies have procedures in place and ways to manage this," Baker said. "Those big businesses are a lot different than consumers. When you have a company more like an HP or a Dell, the company might have more of sales issue with the consumer."

The CPSC and Sony could not immediately be reached for comment.

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