Fail once shame on it, fail again and again shame on us

Failure is part of our life. We tend to accept small failures too obvious.  However, often small failures signal larger underlying issues. Not responding to failure properly could be expensive or worse, especially in the field of engineering. A stitch in time saves nine! Failure is instructive. In fact we can learn quite as much from failures of an engineering component or a structure as from its fine performance. The process of investigating the reasons of failure is called failure analysis.

In the case of many small businesses the general mind-set is to fix or replace a failed part without any concern about the root cause. However, it results in costly repetition of failure and productivity loss. We may miss clues to looming and more expensive failures.  Carrying out a thorough and scientific failure analysis can help find root cause, prevent reoccurrence of failure, design better product and service, and save money in the long term. It is often required by law to perform failure analysis by independent experts, especially in case of injury or death. In fact, one of the first steps the federal government took after September 11 is to empower a high powered team of experts to carry out failure analysis. Failure analysis is very much like detective work. There are four major steps in failure analysis.

1) Hypothesis Development: It is important to list all probable cause of failures, including the causes for failure of parts, structures or machines. Often we use “Ask five why's” tool to collect and gather information pertaining to failure. While there is nothing magical about number five, here, it helps us dig deeper into the problem. Often the factors and probable causes are represented in a fish-bone diagram or cause-and-effect diagram. Past experience, engineering judgment and common sense help to eliminate most except a few probable causes. This step should involve all aspects of the structure or part--beginning from design, manufacturing/ building, inspection, service condition and failure--and list all possible defects and failure modes.

2) Failure Re-creation®: Using cutting edge computing, we can re-create failure before disturbing failure. For example, to determine what is the most likely cause of failure, we modeled a few environmental and operational factors typically seen by a microelectronic package using ANSYS software. Also, the use of software is less expensive, does not modify the failed parts (tamper with evidence to use legal parlance) and the information garnered does not possess prejudice, bias or prior knowledge. Of late, many legal cases are also relying on the same principles with attorneys presenting their cases to juries through the use of multimedia.

3) Analysis: This step is similar to a crime investigation step in which evidence is gathered and expert opinions sought through further forensic investigation. Interestingly, often failure analysis of a component or a structure uses similar instruments that a murder case investigation calls for, such as a microscope, x-ray, or chemical analysis. It is important to carry out analysis independently, without a blame game scenario and free from hierarchical influence. Typically, hiring external agents is recommended as they can carry out analysis swiftly, without prejudice and influence.

4) Prevention: This phase is as important as the failure analysis itself as a whole. After learning what caused the failure, it is now time to take steps that will prevent future failure. In this stage a thorough step 1 (hypothesizing all possible causes) will come handy. Going back to step 1 and addressing all the likely sources of defects or failure modes will prevent future occurrences. Also, one needs to keep in mind that solving one problem does not prohibit the surfacing of different failures. Comparably, law enforcement methods used to deal with crime prevention through corrective incarcerations, even executions, do not reduce - much less prevent -  a high crime rate. In fact, incarceration transforms petty criminals into hardened ones. After all, they are dealing with human beings. Fortunately, structures and parts are more predictable. A good failure prevention mechanism based on sound scientific principles and common sense do prevent failure.

If you have similar failure more than once, maybe it is high time you become a detective or hire one. If one Titanic sinks, a bridge collapses, or a bolt fails shame on it. If similar failure occurs again and again shame on us.

ScienceTomorrow can help you prevent failure next time around.

ScienceTomorrow offers its services in failure analysis of complex components with distinct failure modes--from heavier metal-based, plastic, ceramics, lightweight composite, hybrid designs through ICs, MEMS and to electronic components. ScienceTomorrow performs failure analysis by combining design, manufacturing, and materials characterization with state-of-the-art finite element analysis, root cause analysis of structural and functional failures. Failure analysis (FA) is performed by PE licensed, PhDs, industry experts with experience and knowledge in oil and gas, energy, marine, electronics, transportation, consumer, amusement, defense, and process industry at both product and process levels. Our experts indentify and quantify the failure details with their cause and magnitude. We investigate product liability issues involving industrial, oil field, automotive, aircraft, and navy applications and provide expert, economic, practical, and insightful solutions. For analyzing failure, experts at ScienceTomorrow:

  • Apply fundamental engineering theory and prior experience to develop hypotheses,
  • Undertake field visits and onsite evaluation, as needed  
  • Employ state-of-art techniques to test each hypothesis until sources of failure identified,
  • Recreate failure using powerful cutting edge computer simulation,
  • Determine root cause(s),
  • Formulate recommendations to prevent future failure, and
  • Devise repair, resurface, and reuse strategy of the failed component based on economy and risks.