Dell: Exploding batteries are Sony's fault

Company chairman lays blame for Dell's recent battery crisis firmly at the feet of Sony.
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor

NEW YORK--Chairman Michael Dell has denied that the way Dell constructs its PCs played a part in a spate of battery-related fires. He instead laid the blame entirely with the manufacturer of the battery cells, Sony.

"We know exactly why there was a problem. Sony had contaminated its cells in the manufacturing process," Dell told ZDNet UK at the company's Technology Day event here on Wednesday.

Dell refuted reports by Sony that the way his company integrates the battery cells into its PC designs made its machines more susceptible to problems than devices from other computer makers.

"The batteries were contaminated and were no good no matter what you did with them," Dell said. "We know the batteries, under rare circumstances, catch fire, (which is why we recalled them)."

Dell recalled the batteries last month after several of its laptops overheated and caught fire. Other manufacturers are known to use Sony battery cells, but only Dell and Apple Computer have been affected by any problems.

Sony has agreed to help financially with the Dell recall and another by Apple resulting from faults with Sony batteries. However, a Sony representative denied that the blame for Dell's battery cell problems lay completely with the Japanese manufacturer.

"It is the configuration. We use the same batteries in our Vaios, and have our own safeguards against potential overheating. Other manufacturers which use the same cells haven't come forward with any issues. On rare occasions, a short circuit can occur, but this is affected by systems configurations found in different laptops," the representative said.

Extra problems for small manufacturers?
But Dell has maintained that other laptop manufacturers may face the same battery problems that forced it to recall 4.1 million cells. The computer giant claimed that it preempted the rest of the market in recalling the batteries.

"We were out in front on this issue, we see this stuff faster. Maybe there are products out on the (reseller) channel that could (have problems). I don't see anything to preclude that," Alex Gruzen, general manager of the Dell product group, told ZDNet UK. "Maybe we're seeing problems ahead of the smaller-volume producers."

Dell said this may be more difficult to rectify for smaller manufacturers that sell through reseller channels, as those manufacturers, because they had not sold directly to customers, would have to take extra steps to trace and recall faulty batteries.

"We can identify who has the faulty batteries in a way our competitors cannot, because they sell through the channel," added Gruzen.

Gruzen added that the recall was progressing well but admitted the company had little control over any damage to its reputation following the battery problems.

"It's really up to you (the consumer), to be honest. Customers will have to decide for themselves. We're going to worry about what's under our control. We are executing the recall extraordinarily well," Gruzen said.

Jeff Kimble, European marketing manager for Dell, said that the faulty batteries were a problem Dell wasn't proud of, but that it was "proud of its response."

Sony said the recalls had arisen because of microscopic metal particles in the recalled battery cells coming into contact with other parts of the battery cell, leading to a short circuit within the cell.

"The potential for this to occur can be affected by variations in the system configurations found in different notebook computers," Sony said.

Sony currently estimates that the overall cost of supporting the recall programs of Apple and Dell will amount to between 20 billion and 30 billion yen (US$170 million and US$255 million). The estimate is based on the cost of replacement battery packs and any related costs to be incurred by Sony.

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