Will your laptop battery explode? Check the number and maybe you'll recall....

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2006/10/21 22:17 -04:00, original URI: http://blogs.msdn.com/b/michkap/archive/2006/10/21/854225.aspx


Ok, we are now a few months into the huge battery recall that is affecting Dell, Apple, and other companies that bought battery cells from Sony that proved to have a fire hazard associated with them. The numbers are staggering, with an estimated 4.1 million batteries in Dell's recall and an estimated 1.8 million batteries in Apple's.

(by the way, I checked all of my batteries and none of them are in the bad range. Whew!)

But one of the parts of this story that bothers me though most others do not seem to be doing much with it is the way that programs like the Dell Battery Recall and the iBook G4 and PowerBook G4 Battery Recall are both being set up, with customers needing to check for specific serial numbers on their batteries, the sort of thing that really bothers IT departments and other large organizations even more than individual users given how difficult it is to keep track of things.

Now there was a period when I was moving from Dell "C" series laptops to Dell "D" series laptops that I learned about the internal part numbers for the pieces inside the parts that an external person like me would buy. Because I had a whole bunch of "modular bay" hard drives that had to be converted to "D-Bay" hard drives, without manually copying the data and dumping the old drives. This is knowledge that came in handy later whenever I had a bigger drive that I wanted to stick into a "D-Bay" by just buying the shell from Dell. I had a series of part numbers for the shell and for the screws that hold the shell together (yes, the screws had their own internal part number!).

It is clear that just as with any huge manufacturing organization, the assembling of these pieces is accomplished with a system that knows the exact internal part numbers go with each external part number.

It is also clear that this information about the internal part numbers is not kept once units are sold to consumers. If they were, then the battery recall would work like automobile recalls would work, where the specific people known to be affected are each getting notified because they see which million customers that purchased battery A12345 contained Sony battery cells B67890 and would therefore need to be recalled.

Now obviously this would be supplemented with the same larger notice to deal with the batteries that now belong to someone else, especially in large organizations where such things might be expected to be common. But wouldn't this have been easier to manage had such data existed?

Did some bean counter add up the cost of a recall without having such information stored and compare it to the cost of storing all of that extra data and just find that it is more cost effective to make the consumers do the bulk of the work here to look up these serial numbers and for support technicians to have to deal with so many more extra calls?

Or perhaps even worse -- do they have all that data but decided it is more cost effective to put the burden on the customers, since the larger notice is needed anyway? That thought seems a bit too paranoid and cynical even for me, but I can't help wondering if the expense of the recall, which is so significant that Sony has cut its profit forecast by more than 1/3, is helped by limiting liability if people don't actually checked their batteries and they subsequently start lighting up.

I also wonder about the reports that Sony would help with expense of the recall; could the fact that they are "helping" rather than assuming responsibility be due to the contributory negligence of all of the companies that did not bother to keep track of which batteries went where? Or maybe also the contributory negligence of the way that the battery is used making the fire more likely in some batteries than others?

I guess there aren't too many people who will ever get to hear the real story about what happened or about what improvements will be made in the future. Because the age of Internet journalism make this a story for the length of time it takes to put the article up, and there is no computerized Woodward and Bernstein types to try and track down the real story in such cases. Even if they are a big enough deal to cost as much money as this one did....

Even ignoring the sensationalistic aspects of the story, I am genuinely curious about what will be done in the future to avoid such problems. If you know but don't want to go on record, you can use the contact link and I won't post it here or anywhere. I am definitely in the mood to either have my paranoid/cynical doubts confirmed or my faith in the industry restored. :-)

 

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# Dean Harding on 22 Oct 2006 7:08 PM:

I think the main difference between automobile recalls and laptop recalls is resale. When you sell your car, the sale has to be registered with the RTA (in Australia, I guess that would be the DMV in the U.S.?) and because you have to register your vehicle every year as well, it's possible to keep track of the owner over time.

With a laptop, once you sell it, the manufacturer has no idea who you sold it to, so they can't contact that person. Plus, I assume that laptop would be resold much faster than cars. I'm sure there's been a fairly significant number of resales since 2004...

# Michael S. Kaplan on 22 Oct 2006 7:30 PM:

That would be one factor, yes. But there are lots if people who want to keep the warranty service up, and there would be pretty huge base of known customers they could contact directly....

# Phylyp on 23 Oct 2006 2:27 AM:

> Did some bean counter add up the ...

Reminds me of the line from Fight Club:

"Take the number of vehicles in the field, A, multiply by the probable rate of failure, B, multiply by the average out-of-court settlement, C. A times B times C equals X. If X is less than the cost of a recall, we don't do one. "

# Michael S. Kaplan on 23 Oct 2006 2:34 AM:

HI Phylyp,

I was actually thinking of Jedediah Tucker Ward (Gene Hackman) asking Anthony Patricola (Ken Grantham) about his role as the "head bean counter" in the movie Class Action (a movie that fascinates me for several other unrelated reasons, so I have seen it several times!).

:-)

yokio on 26 Jul 2010 12:05 AM:

laptop battery www.batterylaptoppower.com


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