Black & Decker Co. is recalling tens of thousands of Lite Years and Just For Me flashlights powered by Eastman Kodak Co.'s Ultralife nine-volt batteries.
Kodak said the lithium batteries, which were supposed to last 10 years, do not.
The recall has strained relations between Kodak, a leading maker of photographic and related equipment, and Black & Decker, a Towson, Md., maker of power tools and one of Kodak's biggest customers.
"We are disappointed that Black & Decker chose to go this route" in recalling the affected flashlights, said Kodak spokesman Ron Roberts. "We did not advise them to recall the flashlights. All we did, as a matter of business ethics, was to tell them the results of our tests" showing a shorter-than-predicted life span for the batteries, Roberts said.
Kodak recently discovered that the lithium Ultralife cells develop an internal chemical buildup that restricts electron flow and eventually leads to what might be called flash failure. Some Kodak technicians have likened the problem to a cholesterol buildup in arteries that can cause heart attacks.
Kodak officials said the problem is minor and will be corrected in a matter of weeks. Moreover, the problem affects only the storage life of the batteries, according to Kodak officials.
Storage life, or shelf life, indicates how long batteries can be kept unused without going bad. Storage life is different from use life, which indicates the length of time batteries or similar items can be used before losing power.
The use life of the Ultralife batteries "is still twice as long as long-life alkaline batteries," Roberts said.
"The batteries do work. The flashlights will light," Roberts said.
"We told them that we would be willing to replace any of the batteries that had the problem," Roberts said.
Kodak said it would honor the warranties on the batteries. Consumers with complaints can either contact the company directly or return merchandise, with proof of purchase, to the retailer.
Black & Decker officials declined comment on Roberts' remarks. But they did acknowledge that they temporarily are pulling the Lite Years and Just For Me flashlights from the market. Lite Years was introduced in 1987, and Just For Me went on sale last month.
Black & Decker officials refused to say exactly how many flashlights are involved. They also refused to comment on the cost of the recall, other than to say that Kodak will pick up the tab.
Black and Decker is the only manufacturer using the Ultralife battery as standard equipment in its product.
The problem comes at an inopportune time for Kodak, which was beginning to make headway in the $2.5-billion-a-year battery market.
"It postpones for about one year the momentum they were gaining in the battery business," said Charles K. Ryan, an analyst with Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Inc. in New York. Kodak entered the battery business in 1986 in an attempt to capitalize on the widespread drugstore and supermarket sales of its photographic equipment, Ryan said.
Kodak in 1987 entered a joint-venture agreement with the giant Matsushita electronics group of Japan to build an alkaline battery factory in the United States. The new venture, Matsushita-Ultra Tech. Battery Corp., was approved by the federal government last month. The companies said the U.S. battery plant will be built this year, but they have yet to announce a site. About $200 million of Kodak's $13.2 billion in sales last year came from batteries, Ryan said.