PC Makers Say Battery Problems Limited

 
 
By John G. Spooner  |  Posted 2006-08-16
 
 
 

PC Makers Say Battery Problems Limited


Dells battery recall—the largest battery recall thus far in computer history—may not get much bigger, according to the initial reactions of top PC makers, including Hewlett-Packard and Lenovo Group.

Dell on Aug. 14 issued a recall for 4.1 million notebook PC battery packs due to manufacturing defects that could lead to fires. The battery pack cells were manufactured by Sony and sold by the Round Rock, Texas, PC maker between 2004 and 2006, Dell officials said.

Read more here about Dell notebooks catching fire.

Despite the size of the action by Dell and Sonys status as the worlds second-largest supplier of lithium-based batteries, no other PC maker contacted by eWEEK said it had found a problem with its notebook batteries. Representatives from Gateway, Hewlett-Packard and Lenovo all said on Aug. 15 that their companies notebooks were not affected by the conditions that lead Dell to issue its recall. Apple Computer, meanwhile, said it was investigating whether batteries it has used meet its standards.

Instead, the PC makers moved to quickly distance themselves from the massive action by Dell.

"This is not impacting us. The Dell recall is isolated to Dell," said Mike Hockey, an HP spokesperson, in Houston, Texas.

Lenovo "is not recalling any batteries at this time," said Bob Page, a spokesperson for Lenovo, in Raleigh, N.C. "Our own analysis—and information supplied to us by Sony—shows the issues experienced by our competitors systems are a combination of factors that are not present in our own systems."

Even Sony, which said it was working with Dell to both replace the battery packs and share the costs of the recall, said it wasnt immediately aware of incidents with its battery cells used by other brands of notebooks, even its own Sony VAIO-brand machines.

But that wont stop the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, which is working with Dell on the recall, from looking for other problems. Despite offering praise for Dells handling of the recall, Scott Wolfson, a spokesperson for the CPSC, in Washington D.C., said that its possible other products using Sony-made battery cells might eventually be recalled as well.

"We have ongoing talks with Sony, the manufacturer of the battery," Wolfson said. "We want to make sure we have all of the information about where the batteries are being used in non-Dell products to ensure that no other consumers are in harms way."

Sony said it has only seen reports of problems from Dell so far, said David Yang, a spokesperson for Sony Electronics America in San Diego, Calif.

"But we are looking into cells manufactured for other [PC] manufacturers," he said. "There are, from a technical standpoint, many, many variables that can cause these incidents. Its difficult to say formally that this is one problem."

Among the variables are the arrangement of battery cells inside a battery pack—whether or not those cells are aligned horizontally or vertically, for example—as well as the pack design and its location inside a notebook, he said.

Dell, HP and Lenovo have different specifications for their battery packs and also manage things like how they charge the packs differently. Lenovo, for one, says it uses a lower charge rate, which it says ensures the packs in its systems produce less heat and the longest possible operating life.

However, one source familiar with Sonys operations told eWEEK that the difference between problematic and problem-free battery packs could come down to which battery-making lines the cells were produced on. Given that Sony produces battery cells on more than one line, those it produced for one manufacturer may have turned out fine even as others produced for Dell—which is said to take up enough production for one whole line—turn up with problems, the source said.

Although the cells were generally manufactured in Japan, Yang said he could not confirm whether or not the issue was limited to one specific plant or assembly line.

Nevertheless, Dells recall could spark renewed interest in batteries by consumers and even government agencies, particularly if the problem turns out to be more widespread than it is thought to be at the moment, analysts said.

"Its the Sony cells that are the problem" for Dell, said Roger Kay, president of EndPoint Technologies Associates, in Wayland, Mass.

Kay said Dell told him that the cells it is recalling were manufactured using a newer process, which was later discovered to have introduced impurities—tiny metal shards—into the cells. A manufacturing step that involves crimping the ends of each cell is believed to have created the problematic shards, Kay said.

However, "There are a bunch of fairly rare circumstances that have to add up to make it happen," Kay said.

Next Page: Government agencies take a closer look.

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If it was introduced into the right spot, a shard could work its way into a position to cause a short circuit. Short circuits can cause a cascading effect where excessive heat builds up and a cell eventually catches fire. It then ignites the adjacent cells inside a battery pack, producing effects such as those seen from a notebook that caught fire in Osaka, Japan, recently. That machine produced flames and smoke.

"Why Dell thinks its the first to see the problem, is because it was first to adopt these cells from Sony," Kay said. "It thinks its competitors will start seeing these problems in greater frequency as these things get to be two years old and older."

A Dell spokesperson declined to comment on other manufacturers systems. Sonys Yang said that he couldnt be sure Dell was the first or only manufacturer to use the battery cell design.

However, both Dell—with its recall—and Sony, which has now made changes to its manufacturing processes, said they chose to err on the side of caution. Thus far, Dell says it has received only a handful of reports of "incidents" with its Sony-made battery cells, including six in the United States and a few more elsewhere in the world.

One such incident involved the now-famous Osaka laptop. That machine caught fire at a business conference. An investigation that involved a post mortem of the laptop by Dell helped lead to the discovery of the manufacturing defect inside the battery cells, Dell officials said.

"When compared to the hundreds of millions of battery packs and PCs that were shipped [in the time period of the recall], we believe the number of incidents to be very minor," Yang said. "Were taking this precaution to ensure there arent any other failures in the marketplace and also to make sure that were taking care of all of our customers."

Wolfson urged anyone who has one of the affected Dell batteries to comply with the recall as soon as possible.

"If you can tell through our [CPSC] Web site or Dells Web site that you have one of the affected models, take it out of the computer, store it someplace safe and call Dell to get a replacement battery," he said. "We really want consumers to respond quickly to this recall."

Meanwhile, Kay said the scope of the problem could draw a closer look from government agencies, such as the Federal Aviation Administration.

"Then theres going to be an awful moment where [manufacturers] say, We dont know where these things are," Kay said. "Not all of them do, because not everybodys selling direct to the customer. Theoretically, if you paid cash at retail and you never registered the product, nobody would know who you were."

For its part, the FAA has already been testing laptop batteries, according to an agency spokesperson.

Once the agencys recommendations are complete, the FAA will make a recommendation to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration as to whether the lithium-ion batteries used in most laptop computers are safe to use.

The FAA says it has no plans to ground laptops. Click here to read more.

Previously, the most recent battery recall by Dell was a December 2005 campaign to replace about 35,000 Dell notebook battery packs sold to corporations and consumers worldwide between October 2004 and October 2005.

Apple Computer also recently launched a campaign to replace battery packs that shipped with its 15-inch MacBook Pro until May 2006.

Editors Note: This story was updated to include additional information and comments from the CPSC, Sony and PC manufacturers. Additional reporting for this story was provided by Wayne Rash.

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