Every now and then, the universe hands you a story on a silver platter, served with a whopping huge side of situational irony. On Wednesday, 19 fire engines and 110 firemen reported to a fire at Samsung SDI’s Chinese manufacturing facility in Tianjin. The fire was put out without widespread damage to the plant, which mostly remained on a normal manufacturing schedule.
As for where the fire started and what caused it, there’s some confusion in that regard. According to Samsung SDI spokesperson Shin Yong-doo, the fire began in a part of the facility used for waste and faulty batteries — and, of course, the Samsung SDI subsidiary in China was responsible for manufacturing many of the batteries in the Note 7 that failed under stress. There’s no indication that it was actually Note 7 batteries, specifically, that caused the failure — but the Wuqing branch of the Tianjin fire department had a rather different explanation for what had happened. According to them (and Reuters) the “material that caught fire was lithium batteries inside the production workshops and some half-finished products.” If that’s true, it implies some other problem at the plant — which may be precisely why Samsung SDI put the blame on the recycling division.
Former Note 7 owners working at the factory reported that the odor was nostalgic with a hint of cancer.
A fire at a Samsung plant actively involved in recycling Note 7 batteries isn’t good, but it can be spun in an encouraging way. First, it can be argued to represent objective proof that no, these batteries were dangerous and Samsung’s recall was the right thing to do. Perhaps more importantly, investors don’t really care if the parts of your plant involved in waste management and recycling catch fire (not unless you’re a recycling plant, anyway, in which case that’s bad).
Acknowledging that a fire began in the area of the plant dedicated to producing batteries for upcoming Samsung products, on the other hand… well. There’s this little device you’ve probably heard of, called the Galaxy S8, and Samsung is hoping it’ll prove very popular, washing out the melted-phone-and-charred-house odor of the Galaxy Note 7. A fire at one of its facilities dedicated to producing smartphone batteries in particular, at a subsidiary already blamed for the Note 7 recall is a bad way to accomplish that goal.
There is as yet no sign that Samsung’s Note 7 fiasco has hit the company’s popularity or appeal, but that’s the kind of problem you don’t keep provoking. Having screwed the pooch on the Note 7, Samsung will be dead-set on ensuring the same thing doesn’t happen to the Galaxy S8. One bad product is a fluke. Two are typically a sign that something is badly wrong in your manufacturing division.