Failure is a loaded word. It implies fault. But the type of failure analysis engineers usually work on is of things. Things can’t think. So, it really isn’t fair to fault the thing, the part, the assembly, the structure. Rather, the fault lies in the realm of the human factors that led to the desire for the thing, the design and manufacture of the thing, the way the thing or the product that contains the thing is marketed, and the people who buy the thing/product containing the thing.

Furthermore, “things happen” to people, so the habits and traits of people who become customers of the companies who want, make and market the thing may change over time. While our society manages to make an incredible amount of things that end up in landfills and a tiny amount that gets recycled, some things get sold, donated or given to others at garage sales, formal aftermarkets and through family transactions.

Each of the human-thing interactions – from the transportation of the thing to the next place it needs to go, to the way the user interacts with it – offers an opportunity for the “thing” to experience a diminishment of its physical integrity.

There are case studies in the literature of fatigue cracks propagating during shipment. I worked on one of those years ago. There is a large insurance industry that helps people manage the financial risk associated with corrosion during shipping. I have worked on several projects where the recipients of the corroded shipment sought my help to figure out when the corrosion happened so that the claim could be covered or denied with the foundation of a technical opinion.

A significant part of my business is helping companies that have not yet sold their products figure out the “cause” or source of staining or contamination. Deep-drawn parts can be difficult to clean, and if they are not completely cleaned, residue or dirt can create microscopic corrosion cells that can discolor the part surface. Even if there is no corrosion, the residue itself may create an objectionable appearance. Sometimes there is legitimate concern that dirt or residue from earlier processes (lubrication, cleaning) may interfere with the function of the parts at some later time.

Takeaways:

  1. It’s the human(s), not the thing/part/assembly that created the problem.
  2. When carefully examined, we find that there are a mind-blowingly large number of steps required to make something, starting with the intention/thoughts/desires for the thing to exist and moving through the final acquisition of the product by the end user(s).
  3. The foundation for physical damage, whether structural or aesthetic, may be found to have been laid at any, or many, of the steps along the path from desire for the object, to application by a user, or perhaps generations down the road from the people who first envisioned the thing. (My roof came with a 50-year warranty.)
  4. Failure analysis, carefully performed, can shed light not just on why failure happened but sometimes on when. Figuring out when must usually be related to a process step rather than a time on the clock or calendar.
  5. The true basis of failure analysis of any physical thing (as opposed to “my life” or similar conceptual “things”) is understanding HOW it happened.

 

When we have understood, in detail, how a sequence of interactions led to the undesired situation, then we have participated in a real damage analysis. For it to be a real failure analysis, we need to understand the human and business frame of reference in which the entire life cycle of the item played itself out.