Twenty business days. That's how long Dell says it will take to send replacements for the lithium-ion batteries in millions of its laptop computers. Some 4.1 million of the Sony-made batteries, which can burst into flames because of a manufacturing defect, need to be replaced as part of the biggest electronics recall in U.S. history.
The world's largest computer maker cautions customers that "batteries subject to recall should not be used while awaiting a replacement battery pack."
Businesses with hundreds or thousands of Dell laptops face the time-consuming task of checking the battery in each laptop, identifying those that need to be replaced, waiting for replacements, and swapping out the batteries. That's something few have planned or budgeted for. More than 80,000 requests for replacements were submitted to Dell in less than a day, and more than 23 million people visited the company's Web site seeking information on the recall.
"We understand that affected customers are concerned when they might receive a replacement battery. We know how important it is to keep your laptops mobile, and we are working at a feverish pace to accommodate all affected customers," says a posting on the Dell corporate blog. "Right now, it will take 20 business days to get it to you."
Customers who don't want their mobile computers to become immobile can install third-party batteries rather than wait four weeks for a Dell replacement. That won't void the warranty, but Dell "strongly" encourages customers to wait for a Dell-branded battery.
The recall of the batteries is tarnishing the reputations of both Dell and Sony, and it could cost Sony more than $400 million in replacement costs. Neither company would provide details last week on how the problem occurred, but both rushed to minimize the damage.
Dell is attempting to "fall on its sword" and emulate the strategy of Johnson & Johnson following the Tylenol tampering cases of 1982 by quickly acknowledging the problem and removing all potentially hazardous products from circulation, says Ted Schadler, an analyst with Forrester Research. "But there is one thing missing, and that is Dell hasn't come out and said specifically what happened and what they're doing to ensure it never happens again," Schadler says.
A Dell spokeswoman says the company is confident process changes have been made to ensure there won't be a reoccurrence.
Dell and Sony last week acknowledged that microscopic particles inside lithium-ion battery cells can rupture the linings of battery packs and cause fires. But neither company gave details on why the specific design used by Dell caused at least six incidents that are being investigated by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Sony sells batteries used in laptops from Apple, Hewlett-Packard, and Lenovo, as well as in devices such as MP3 and DVD players. Similar batteries are used in laptops and other portable devices and have produced hundreds of problems over the years, resulting in small recalls. But there's been nothing on the scale of Dell's battery recall.
In most cases, problems in lithium-ion battery cells result in a simple short circuit, a Sony spokesman says. "There are other factors that can lead to the very rare instance of flaming. The odds are greater if the particles move at a faster speed and are affected by things like charging and voltage," he says.
Nancy Nord, acting chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, said on PBS's The News Hour last week that the issue "was not a design problem ... but deals with quality control in the manufacture of the battery. A contaminant got into the cell, and when the battery is vigorously jostled or compressed, that contaminant can cause a short."
The commission is monitoring the recall and looking to see if other products might face similar problems. In the meantime, Dell customers have to sit and wait.