Tracking Lithium-ion Safety Problems? -
to Battery Manufacturers? - in China?
by Shirley Georgi
In June 2005, the U.S. Products Safety Commission (CPSC) had four more recalls involving batteries, three of which involved Lithium-ion safety. Outside of the U.S., and not associated with CPSC, were two additional recalls. Growth in the usage of Lithium-ion batteries and a steep climb in imports from China seem to correlate with more recalls.
Outside the U.S.
There was a Lithium-ion recall by Fijitsu Siemens for batteries in its Amilo notebook. The company received four reports of batteries overheating, but the manufacturer of the batteries was not named.
Rechargeable Lithium Batteries to Double in $$$. (Data is from “Batteries” published by the Freedonia Group, Inc., 05/2005. For more information see www.freedoniagroup.com.) +
PC (Personal Computer) manufacturer Maxdata is also offering a free exchange of potentially faulty batteries for some of the its ECO 400 notebooks. The batteries may cause overheating and there is the potential for the risk of fire. Maxdata’s website has a photo of the battery pack. It was made by Gallopwire of Taiwan. Gallopwire reports on its website that it is the No. 1 Battery Pack OEM/ODM manufacturer of notebook computers. Yet, 10,000 computers in Europe had to be recalled because of faulty batteries. Gallopwire makes the packs, but it is unknown who makes the battery cells for them.
In the U.S.
On June 8th, an importer - Mintek Digital, Inc. of Anaheim, California, announced a recall of portable DVD players because the battery can overheat and explode while recharging. Mintek received 10 reports of incidents, including nine cases of the Lithium-ion polymer battery pack overheating and/or catching fire and one report of the battery pack overheating and bursting. In this situation, Mintek Digital listed the entire unit as manufacturered and sold under its own name. However, the recall also states, “Manufactured in: China.” (BD note: The question remains - Why doesn’t Mintek Digital name the supplier of the battery for their units?)
On June 21, Belkin Corporation of Compton, California, a distributor of BluetoothTM GPS navigation systems, recalled the Lthium-polymer batteries sold with these navigation systems. Belkin reported 15 incidents of batteries overheating and expanding, but no injuries were reported. Once again the recall just states, “Manufacturered in: China.” However, in the photo on the CSPC site, RPC Corporation is listed on the battery pack. RPC Corporation is a battery manufacturer in Guangdong, China. Very little is said about the company on its website, but the company does state that it holds ISO9001/UL/CE certification.
The share of U.S. imports from China of all consumer products under CPCS’s jurisidction increased from 21% in 1997 to 34.5% in 2004. This represents a 64% increase. (Data is couretsy of the Consumer Products Safety Commission.) +
The importer, Battery-Biz, recalled its Hi-capacitiyR Lithium-ion notebook batteries on June 22. These batteries have an internal short which can cause the battery to overheat, posing a fire hazard to consumers. Battery-BizR received six reports of batteries overheating and melting. Interestingly, Battery Biz states that the batteries were manufacturered and assembled in China, Korea and Taiwan. (BD note: Just where could the fault lie and with whom?)
In Apple’s recall last month (May 2005) of computer notebook batteries, LG Chem was listed as the manufacturer, and along with Apple, took responsibility for the defective batteries. Both Apple’s and LG Chem’s names were listed in the CPSC recall. (See “Battery Bugs Infest Apples,” Batteries Digest, June 2005, p.1 at www.batteriesdigest.com) (BD note: The companies’ positive credibility is noted for listing the battery manufacturer.)
Why label battery manufacturers in recalls?
First, Lithium-ion batteries are known to need many redundant devices to make the units safe for the consumer. Reputable lithium battery manufacturers are requiring their manufactured lots of battery cells and packs to be tested for safety and obtain clearance through certifications such as Underwriters Laboratories (UL), Canadian Standards Association (CSA) and TUV. But even these reputable companies who strive for excellence can be taken advantage of by counterfeiters, but they tend to stand in back of their products.
Second, commercial Lithium-ion batteries need to have an admirable safety record in the consumer portable industry in order to enhance their usage in other markets. “Allying end-user safety concerns remains vital to increasing industrial applications of Lithium batteries,” according to Frost & Sullivan’s study on “World Industrial Lithium Battery Markets.
The value of all U.S. imports from China increased from $62.6 billion in 1997 to $179 billion in 2004. This represents an increase of 186% over an eight-year period.
Of the top 10 countries from which consumer goods under CPSC’s jurisidction are imported, China has experienced the fastest growth rate in value of imports. +
Third, it is unknown how many global companies are competing in this almost $1.5 billion market for manufacturing and selling secondary lithium batteries to the U.S. and how many are willing to take “short cuts” in making cells and packs by doing less testing and eliminating safety features in order to offer lower prices to obtain greater market share. Unfortunately, there are manufacturers where the almighty dollar takes precedence over concern for the safety of others. Consumers deserve to know who those companies might be.
Why name China?
China is named specifically because the country is the popular source for the manufacturing of batteries. Although there are a number of brand names there are also many unknown manufacturing entities; in many instances, labeling is just “manufacturered in China.”
Counterfeiting is becoming big business. The World Customs Organization estimates that 7 percent of world merchandise trade ($512 billion in 2004) could be bogus products. In February, Business Week reported in its cover story that “the global counterfeit business is out of control, targeting everything from computer chips to life-saving medicine. It is so bad that even China may need to crack down.” The article also reports that China accounts for two-thirds of counterfeit goods. (“FAKES” by Frederik Balfour, Business Week, 02/07/05, p. 54)
Relative to recalls of all imported consumer goods under CPSC jurisidiction, the share of recalls from China increased from 41% in 1999 to 64% in 2004. (Chart is information are courtesty of CPSC in the U.S.) +
Kyocera probably has had the largest known cell phone battery (Lithium-ion) recall. Last year, the company bore the costs to recall one million units which turned out to be counterfeit.
Design Chain Associates also reported that the independent distribution industry is reporting a growing number of counterfeit parts from China. In their list of 17 electronic components, batteries are included as one of the items with reports of actual and suspected counterfeiting. (http://deisgnchainassociates.com/counterfeit.html.)
Treating (but perhaps not curing) the problem
Responsibility of business
Companies buying OEM and replacement batteries for their devices can do more to alleviate the problem. In addition to buying direct from reputable manufacturers and/or authorized distributors with quality references, it may be of benefit for companies buying Lithium-ion batteries to test a sampling of the packs for functionality and safety and/or deconstruct a sample of the battery to check designed safety features. Another choice might be to have a third party test for failure analysis. Final purchases of batteries should be contingent upon the outcome of the quality.
In the U.S. there are also individuals who may be dealing with counterfeit merchandise. For example, Zheng Xiao Yi, who was a citizen of the People Republic of China, owned and operated an import and wholesale business in Houston which dealt in counterfeit merchandise. One of the items U.S. authorities found in his possession were counterfeit Duracell batteries. Zheng was convicted and sentenced to more than five years in a federal prison in February 2005.
Legitimate businesses and manufacturers in China also have had to deal with counterfeiters within their own country. With legitimate Chinese corporate interests being hit with knockoffs, Beijing has lowered its threshold for criminal prosecution in the last six months.
The CPSC notes that “there is significant opportunity to improve consumer product safety in the United States by improving the safety of products imported into the U.S. from China.” The CPSC staff has proposed ten specific activities which it believes can help improve the safety of Chinese consumer products imported into the United States. The following specific ten activities, in an abbreviated form, are suggested in the CPSC Draft, “International Consumer Product Safety Program Plan - China” of May 25, 2005.” (Note: this is a staff document and has not been reviewed or approved by the Commission itself. It is a work in progress. )
1. China -U.S. Comparative Standards Study:
Identify and compare the Chinese and U.S. product standards applicable to imported consumer products that have been recalled and/or seized.
2. The Importance of Using U.S. Mandatory and Voluntary Standards:
Stress to appropriate Chinese government officials, manufacturers, trade associations and importers the need to comply with both types of safety standards.
3. AQSIQ Staff & CPSC Staff Cooperation: The CPSC and its counterpart in China, the General Administration of Quality, Supervision Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ) already have a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to cooperate in protecting the health and safety of consumers. The next step would be to work with AQSIQ to develop a “Plan of Action on Cooperation” to implement the provisions of the MOU.
4. Testing and Certification Program:
Analyze testing and certification methodology of Chinese consumer products destined for the U.S.
5. Pilot Compliance Program:
Initially monitor Chinese manufacturers for three to five specific types of consumer products destined for the U.S. The experience can be used later to evaluate the effectiveness of China’s conformity assessment program.
6. Professional Exchange Program:
Train Chinese personal involved in consumer product standards and conformity assessment matters.
7. Open Dialogue on Chinese Imports:
The first task could be to review and discuss potential changes to the activities proposed in this draft.
8. Biennial Sino-American Consumer Product Safety Summit: Chinese and American government officials would review their progress in implementing the activities of mutual interest.
9. Horizontal Efforts for Implementation:
The CPSC staff would cultivate relations with national and local Chinese government officials as well as Chinese manufacturers and trade associations.
10. Interagency Activities:
Coordinate activities with all other U.S. Government entities that can help to improve the safety of consumer products imported from China.
Input from Professional and Trade Organizations
Professional groups such as the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, Inc.) have set excellent safety standards for Lithium-ion batteries. Along with the wireless trade organization (CTIA -The Wireless Association) and organizations such as CPSC, the IEEE has formed a working group to develop industry-wide standards for battery design and performance. Authorized laboratories are testing batteries to these standards for the purpose of certifying compliance.
“The work we’re doing in developing battery standards and our cooperation with U.S. Customs and law enforcement agencies regarding counterfeit operations are clean illustrations of the industry’s dedication to proactively and voluntarily recognizing its important role in serving its customer,” stated Steve Largent, President and CEO of CTIA.
No one group or govenment agency can do it alone, but with the help and cooperation of all parties involved, the malignant growth of defective/counterfeit batteries can be minimized.