Our smartphone customers have always told us that their primary concerns are component reliability, durability, and zero defects. But then the 2016 Samsung ‘exploding phone’ debacle happened, and our quality teams started receiving phone calls where they told us quite simply, ‘Please don’t let us become like Samsung. Don’t let us be a pinup poster for everything that can go wrong with making smartphones.
Let’s relook at what happened to Samsung. In September 2016 Samsung had to issue a worldwide recall of its Galaxy Note 7 phones and stop the production after there were numerous instances of the phones overheating and catching fire. They later found that the overheating was due to problems in the batteries sourced from two different suppliers. For the batteries from Samsung SDI, there was not enough room between the protective pouch around the battery and its internal elements. This could lead to the battery short-circuiting. For the batteries sourced from the second supplier, Amperex Technology, there were numerous problems – some cells were missing insulation tape, others had thin separators, and yet more others had sharp protrusions inside the cell that led to damage to the separator between the anode and cathode. The total cost of the recall was at least $5.3 billion.
Smartphone manufacturing is a particularly complex field, especially now when the emphasis is on increasing functionality while squeezing as much as one can from the components, reducing phone sizes, and cutting costs. It’s the perfect recipe for quality problems. This is what we do for our clients to avoid a ‘Samsung situation.
- Accept the limits of technology
Every component has its maximum tolerance level and limits. With the need to get more for less though, customers and their suppliers tend to exceed or fly as close as possible to these limits. That’s what happened with Samsung. We test the components extensively to see whether tolerances are being exceeded and how much stress they can tolerate. Our quality engineers may work with the customer’s and supplier’s design, engineering and production teams to improve the product or component designs so that tolerance levels are not being pushed too far. However, we find that the main challenge for us lies not in technical problems but with convincing the customer management to accept the confines of technology.
- Source Inspections and Process Control
If we had a golden rule this is it – whatever the component sources, stopping the quality problem at the source of production prevents the quality defects from appearing in the final assembly.
Most quality problems occur even before production starts, in the components, subcomponents, and chemicals that are used as the phone is being assembled. Your key supplier is basically an assembler of the final product; the incoming components are either from a vertically integrated manufacturing subsidiary or from an external source. This means that your critical quality control points actually lies with your component suppliers and their sub-suppliers.
Batteries are a great example. Like Samsung, most of the major smartphone manufacturers source them from another provider. In this instance we would get our quality engineers to go to the battery manufacturers and do microscopic monitoring of the production processes and technical reviews of the battery specifications. One issue we focus on is the amount of graphite that is used to coat the anodes and whether it is uniform in thickness and density. If the coating is not done properly (as with Samsung), this can lead to lithium metal forming on the graphite and can create a high risk of electrical short-circuiting.
- Supplier Coordination
As there are so many components coming in from different sources, coordinating suppliers becomes a major problem. We usually find that this is due to poor information and communication management. Stakeholders do not communicate their activities to one another. In such a situation we try and establish dialogue channels, failing that we step in to become the intermediaries.