Lenovo Investigates Laptop Fire; Analysts Say Recall Likely

By Scott Ferguson  |  Posted 2006-09-22 Print this article Print

News Analysis: Lenovo engineers are examining a ThinkPad that caught fire at Los Angeles International Airport. Could there be another recall?

Lenovo Group has experienced a single notebook battery pack failure similar to those seen recently by Apple Computer and Dell, leading analysts to believe it too may have to issue a battery pack recall.

The battery pack, housed inside an IBM ThinkPad T43, caught fire at Los Angeles International Airport earlier this month, Lenovo officials in Raleigh, N.C., confirmed. Lenovo, which purchased IBM's PC group in May 2005, obtained the LAX ThinkPad, and the early stages of an investigation by its engineers in Yamato, Japan, have determined that the pack contained Sony battery cells of the same type that have been involved in overheating incidents and fires reported by Dell and Apple, Ray Gorman, a Lenovo spokesperson, told eWEEK.

Given that Lenovo is still investigating the incident, it is too soon to say what its next move will be, Gorman said.

But, while the chances of a notebook battery pack overheating or catching fire due to a battery problem—improperly manufactured lithium-ion battery cells produced by Sony were at the root of the recall of 4.1 million battery by Dell on Aug. 14 and the recall of 1.8 million battery packs by Apple on Aug. 24—are slim, analysts believe that Lenovo may have no choice given that it appears to have experienced a similar problem to that of Dell and Apple.

What are PC makers doing to try to improve battery cell safety? Click here to read more.

"Extreme cases of battery failures such as this are very rare in Lenovo notebooks," Gorman said. However, he added: "Our number one concern is public safety. We've launched an investigation. We will take whatever measures necessary to serve the interest of our customers and public safety."

Right now, Lenovo "is falling right in the statistical norm. If Dell had 4 million [Sony-cell-based battery packs] ship over a two-year period and you map Lenovo shipments over the same period…you'd come up with one or two failures in the same period," said Roger Kay, president of EndPoint Technologies Associates, in Wayland, Mass.

But, "the implication is that [Lenovo] would be just as vulnerable," Kay said. "The implication is that they've got to do a recall."

Dell and Apple both basically said they chose to err on the side of caution when recalling their battery packs with Sony-made cells. Dell, for its part, said it had received only six reports of "incidents" with battery packs in the United States and a handful more outside of the country.

"Having to admit you've got a problem right at high-selling season [the end of the third calendar quarter and during the fourth calendar quarter] is not much fun," Kay said. "But something like this, which is very high visible, makes it unavoidable. It would be hard not to [issue the recall]."

Following the Dell recall, Lenovo and Hewlett-Packard each said that while they used Sony battery cells, they were confident that they would avoid similar problems because their designs use different charging and battery protection schemes.

What is Dell doing to help customers with its battery recall? Click here to read more.

However, Kay said that they could not be 100 percent certain that no problems would arise, particularly because failures with the Sony cells were hard to replicate.

"The issue was…that no one could replicate the failures," Kay said. "The failures were so rare that even when [company engineers] were tying to make them happen, they weren't able to on a regular basis."

Next Page: Confluence of events leads to fires.


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