As igniting Galaxy Note 7 phones caused house fires, plane delays, and governmental investigations, Samsung engineers faced a different problem — they couldn't get their device to catch fire. Even now — more than a month after the first reports of issues with Note 7 devices surfaced and with the phone out of production — The New York Times says the company doesn't know why its phones are spontaneously combusting, despite deploying hundreds of employees to work on the problem.
Samsung reportedly can't replicate the problem
Unable to replicate the problem, and with reports of flaming devices mounting up, Samsung initially concluded the problem was with some of the phones' batteries, blaming a "minor manufacturing flaw" at its affiliate Samsung SDI. The replacement models, shipped out in mid-September, exclusively used batteries from a different supplier (ATL), but had their own problems. Just days after the replacement units hit the market, the supposedly safe phones also started to ignite, prompting the company to issue a full recall of the device.
Even now, it seems Samsung can't pinpoint what the defect was. Park Chul-wan, a former director of the Center for Advanced Batteries at the Korea Electronics Technology Institute, said he reviewed the Korean regulatory agency's documents and spoke to Samsung engineers. "It was too quick to blame the batteries," Park told The New York Times. "I think there was nothing wrong with them or that they were not the main problem," he said, pointing to the complexity of the device as a reason why it's taken so long to work out why the devices became dangerous. "The Note 7 had more features and was more complex than any other phone manufactured," Park said. "In a race to surpass iPhone, Samsung seems to have packed it with so much innovation it became uncontrollable."
The batteries were identified as the problem too early, an expert said
Samsung also banned emails between testers, the NYT says, making it harder for engineers to communicate their theories or findings with each other about where the problems lay. The company reportedly feared legal action if written communications were to fall into the wrong hands, and told employees to keep their messages to each other offline. Samsung's corporate culture could also have contributed to the problem, and its delayed discovery — the NYT sources two former Samsung employees who say the company was "militaristic," with orders coming from seniors who may not understand the technology actually used in the company's products.
The effects of the Note 7 withdrawal have already hit Samsung's finances: the company today slashed its third-quarter profit forecast by a third after originally indicating it wouldn't have too big an impact on its takings. In the meantime, investigators conducting their own research into the Note 7 believe that replacement phones may have caught fire due to a new flaw in the ATL batteries, different to the problem identified in the Samsung SDI cells — an eventuality that would call into question Samsung's ability to maintain the quality of its suppliers' components.