Sony details battery problems, replacement program

It said flaw was caused during production

Sony Corp. provided greater detail about a battery manufacturing problem that is expected to lead to the replacement of up to 9.6 million laptop computer battery packs.

The problem was first acknowledged in August when Dell Inc. issued a recall for 4.1 million batteries and until now had been described as metallic particles that got into the batteries during the manufacturing progress. Today, Sony expanded on issue and said the particles, believed to be nickel, likely got into the batteries during two stages in production: when a groove was created in the battery cases and when the electrolyte was poured into the cells.

But that alone wouldn't be enough to cause the fires that have been reported by laptop owners. For that to happen, Sony believes, the particles would have to fall into a small triangular gap in the cell body right at the point where the cathode ends between two layers of spacer material. Then, depending on system configuration, the conditions could be right for a fire to start in the battery.

"The probability of this occurrence very much depends on system configuration," said Takashi Enami, senior general manager of the energy business group at Sony. He said size and shape of the battery pack and the charging configuration could all increase the risk but he wouldn't offer any specific information, citing confidentiality agreements between Sony and its customers.

As a result of the problems, 6.1 million batteries have been recalled by Dell and Apple Computer Inc. An additional 3.5 million batteries are covered by a Sony-led replacement program that offers new batteries to laptop users who are worried about the safety of their systems. Last week, Sony said it anticipates costs of $429 million as a result of the battery problems.

Four IT managers interviewed by Computerworld last week said they have replaced Sony laptop batteries in their organizations through their laptop manufacturers, but none even ventured to guess what their own labor and lost productivity costs would be (see "Sony battery recall can cost IT shops time, trouble, study says").

The replacement program covers two types of cells used in battery packs, a 2.4Ah (ampere-hour) and 2.6Ah model, and information on the affected battery packs and laptop PC models sold in the U.S. can be found at the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) home page.

Sony considered the battery replacement after a laptop made by Lenovo Group Ltd. caught fire at Los Angeles International Airport, said Yutaka Nakagawa, executive deputy president of Sony and head of its semiconductor and component group. That incident is still under investigation, and it's difficult to pinpoint the exact cause because only two of the six cells inside the battery pack remain, he said.

"In preparing for the program, we have been in discussion with the CPSC and the PC manufacturers, which required time, and that is why the announcement is being made today," said Nakagawa.

The replacement batteries won't all come from Sony because it doesn't have the manufacturing capacity to produce enough cells in the time required, said Nakagawa. As a result, Sony will source some cells from rival companies. Nakagawa said as a result there is a general possibility that Sony might not win back all the business it had before the battery problems occurred. Its success or failure in keeping business very much depends on how well Sony does to persuade customers that the problems are behind it, he said.

In addition, Sony also increased the number of its own battery packs eligible for the replacement program. Last week, it said 60,000 batteries used in PCs in Japan and China would be replaced. On Tuesday, Sony increased this to 250,000 batteries worldwide.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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