In February, I had the pleasure of doing a two-day failure-analysis seminar for the Chennai Chapter of ASM International. The focus of the seminar was fracture analysis. With only two days, I had to focus on what I feel are the least-understood aspects of the work. One of these is getting tuned in to the proper mindset to see the evidence. This involves knowing which details to ignore (for example, post-fracture damage that happened as a result of the fracture) even when it stands out, crying for attention, and which details matter, even if they are difficult to notice (for example, because they are at a position away from the obvious suspicious-looking area).

One of the things I love about being part of a technical community is being able to share with people from vastly different backgrounds and places. Back in 2008 when I gave a short presentation on visual inspection for failure analysis to the student ASM International chapter at the Government Engineering College in Pune, I used the shoelace example from Don Wulpi’s book Understanding How Components Fail in a failed attempt to explain the idea of “expected failure location.”

The members of the audience looked at me blankly. Then I realized why. There were exactly four people in the room with laced shoes: the speaker, the department chair and the ASM liaisons from the senior chapter! All of the students were wearing sandals. It was my second trip to India. I’d spent almost two months in the country by then. But it was only my second day in southern India. It was Feb. 28, and it was already getting hot. I’m still searching for a substitute example of a fracture that “everyone is familiar with” in the way that Americans would be familiar with the way shoelaces break – almost always at one of the top eyelets, where the maximum wear and combined bending and tensile stresses act.

But I did have an idea about how to explain the first step of a failure analysis to an India audience. Unlike many failure analysis how-to books, the first item on my list is to DO NOTHING. This is a really important step. We all need time to clear our minds, intentionally minimizing the effects of preconceived ideas. We also need to make a statement to those who would rush us that the job can’t be done properly when it’s rushed.

I was pleased with myself when I thought of a way to explain this to my metallurgist sisters and brothers of India.

“When you go to a temple, you ring the bell provided, you bow down, touch your fingertips or your forehead to the threshold of the temple and greet the spirit. That’s the ritual for entering a temple. When you enter the technical world of doing failure analysis, you do nothing. At least you do nothing that anyone can see. Starting your failure-analysis ritual by breaking away from whatever activity was occupying your mind, you give yourself a better chance to figure out what needs to be figured out.”

I believe that the “average Indian” is more in tune, more of the time, with their religious heritage than the “average American.” So now I have to find the equivalent explanation of the importance of doing nothing for my American audiences.

The second step in a failure analysis is the visual examination. This has two parts: looking at the part and looking for specific features, such as river lines, corrosion product or beach marks. Looking at the part is the more difficult of the two. It’s really challenging to see “what is present” in an unfiltered way. More on that in my next blog post.