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Preventing Mechanical Failures - An Introduction to Failure Mode

By Thomas Brown
Failure mode identification is often regarded as a specialized skill requiring years of study
and training to master. However, it is much like vibration analysis. One does not have to be
able to solve mathematics functions like Laplace transforms or Fourier series to be an
excellent vibration analyst. Nor does the failure analyst have to solve linear elastic fracture
mechanics problems to be effective.
The ability to recognize a characteristic spectrum pattern allows the vibration analyst to
identify what is happening and the effect on a particular machine. The same may be said of
failure mode identification. It is a process of comparing surface features of broken parts to
characteristic surface features of known failure modes. This comparative analysis enables
identification of the physical failure mode.
Whether or not a full blown root cause failure analysis or basic component analysis is done,
correct identification of failure modes is essential.
Types of Fractures
Fractures are described in one of three ways: ductile overload, brittle overload and fatigue.
Each type of fracture has distinct characteristics that allow identification.
Ductile Overload Fracture occurs as force is applied to a part causing permanent distortion
and subsequent fracture. As excessive force is applied to the part, it bends or stretches. As
more force is applied, it finally breaks.
Ductile fractures are easy to recognize because the parts are distorted. The fracture surface
typically has a dull and fibrous surface. Figure 1 shows a classic example of a tensile ductile
failure. The narrowing or necking indicates there has been extensive stretching of the
metal. The part has a cup and cone surface; the sides have roughly a 45 angle.

Figure 1: Ductile Fracture with characteristic distortion and shear lip

Because ductile overload cracks start differently at the molecular level than brittle fractures,
they frequently have a 45 shear lip. The presence of a shear lip is another clue the fracture
was ductile.

Ductile failure is useful in many situations where bending or distortion absorbs energy. Steel
highway guard rails are designed to distort and absorb energy before fracture, gradually
slowing the vehicle. A part that bends gives the operator an unmistakable warning something
is wrong.
Brittle Overload Fracture occurs when there is little or no distortion of the part before it
breaks. The file pieces in Figure 2 could be put back together in perfect alignment.

Figure 2: Brittle Fracture

Brittle fracture results from the application of excessive force to a part that does not have
the ability to deform plastically before breaking. When a brittle fracture occurs, there is little
warning. A high strength bolt breaks suddenly, a glass shatters when it hits the floor, or a
cast iron bracket breaks without noticeable bending are examples of brittle fractures.
Brittle fractures frequently have chevron marks pointing to the origin of the fracture, shown
in Figure 3. The one on the left is like the name implies, a series of chevrons. The chevron
tips point to the origin of the fracture. The chevron marks on the right are fan shaped ridges
radiating from the origin.

Figure 3: Brittle Fracture Types

The brittle fracture in Figure 4 occurred when a drive shaft suddenly stopped. The universal
joint fractured, creating the tell-tale chevron marks of a brittle fracture.

Figure 4: Brittle fracture of a universal joint with chevron marks pointing to the origin

Fatigue Fractures are the most common type of fracture. About half of all fractures are
fatigue fractures. They are usually the most serious type of failure because they can occur in
service without overloads and under normal operating conditions. Fatigue fractures
frequently occur without warning.
Fatigue fractures occur under repeated or fluctuating stresses. The maximum stress in a part
is less than the yield strength of the material. Fatigue fractures begin as a microscopic crack
or cracks that grow as force is applied repeatedly to a part.
Fatigue fractures have several distinct characteristics that make them easy to identify.
Several distinctive features of a typical fatigue fracture are shown in Figure 5: an origin
where a crack started, a fatigue zone and an instantaneous zone. This fatigue fracture
started at the keyway and progressed across the shaft (the fatigue zone) until material
remaining was no longer strong enough to support the load and it finally broke (the
instantaneous zone).The fatigue zone is unique to fatigue fractures because it is the region
where the crack has grown from the origin to the instantaneous zone. It may take millions or
billions of cycles for the crack to travel across this zone. When the load is high, the number
of required cycles for the part to finally break is low; but if the load is low, the number of
cycles necessary for fracture is much higher.

Figure 5: Features of a typical fatigue fracture: origin, fatigue zone, progression lines and
instantaneous zone.

The presence of progression lines in the fatigue zone is a positive way to identify fatigue
fractures. Progression lines also have been called stop marks, arrest marks and beach
marks, all in an effort to describe their appearance. Progression lines are visible ridges or
lines that are typical of crack progression across a ductile material. Each mark or line is
created when the crack stops. They can be formed by corrosion, changes in load magnitude,
or loading frequency.
Sometimes progression lines are not visible. If the load doesnt change or the metal has very
fine grains, they wont be visible. The fatigue zone will have a uniform fine grained texture
like the tension failure of the cylinder rod in Figure 6. The instantaneous zone has a coarse
grained or rock candy texture.

Figure 6: Fatigue fracture of a cylinder rod without progression lines

There may be some deformation of ductile materials as the final fracture occurs. The final
fracture zone is essentially an overload fracture. If the material is ductile, deformation may
occur. Brittle materials should not have any gross deformation. Frequently, there is little or
no deformation from the fracture, but the surfaces rub against each other and are damaged
after the final fracture occurs at the instantaneous zone.
Fatigue fractures dont require high stress, so there is usually very little deformation. It is
often possible to fit the parts back together in good alignment like the journal in Figure 7.
Remember that putting the parts back together damages the microscopic features of the
fracture faces.

Figure 7: This journal fatigue fracture could be fit back together after it fractured.

Stress Concentrations and Ratchet Marks

Every fatigue crack will have at least one and frequently more origins where the crack starts.
Initiation of a crack occurs because there is a small region where the stress is higher. Higher
stress regions may be caused by change in geometry of the part, such as a keyway, change
in diameter, holes, corrosion pit, or metallurgical flaw.
Stress concentrations have two important characteristics. First is the severity. Sudden
changes in shape, like a keyway, sharp corner, or corrosion pit, will cause a large stress
increase in a very small area. Conversely, a smooth, largeradius will cause a much smaller
stress increase and the part does not fail.
Second, the number of stress concentrations provides multiple locations (origins) for fatigue
cracks to start. Multiple stress concentrations are frequently caused by corrosion, rough
finish, or welding.
Ratchet marks are formed when multiple fatigue origins are near each other. A crack starts at
each origin. As cracks meet, a ridge or step is formed, creating the ratchet mark. Eventually,
the cracks merge into one fracture and a single progression line continues across the part.
Ratchet marks are not origins, but rather the location where cracks meet.
A large number of ratchet marks indicates an excessive number of stress concentrations on
the surface and/or extremely high stress. When either or both of these conditions occur, the
number of ratchet marks is greater than if there were fewer stress concentrations or lower
The shaft in Figure 8 was welded around the circumference, creating multiple stress
concentrations. Multiple fatigue cracks started around the circumference and progressed
toward the center. The instantaneous zone is small, indicating the load on the shaft was

Figure 8: A fatigue fracture with multiple origins and ratchet marks

Types of Force and Fracture

Figure 9 shows the five types of forces that may be applied to a part:

Figure 9: Five types of forces that may be applied to a part

Tension occurs when a part is pulled at opposite ends. A bolt is a good example.
Torsion is caused by twisting the ends of a part. Torsion occurs in pump and motor shafts.
Bending occurs when one or both ends of a part are held and a force(s) is applied at a
point(s) along its length. Belt tension or misalignment causes bending.

Shear occurs when two closely spaced opposing forces are applied across a part. It often
occurs in bolts and pins.
Compression occurs when a part is pushed on both ends.
These forces may be combined in countless ways, but the direction of the fracture will tell
which one or combination of these forces was present and what force was dominant.
Tension, bending and torsion are the most commonly encountered forces in failures. Pure
shear, as shown in Figure 9, is less frequent and compression failures are rare.
We frequently discard broken parts before letting them tell us their history. An examination
of broken and damaged parts will yield a wealth of information about their history. The parts
will tell us if they were overloaded, exposed to corrosive materials, improperly designed,
manufactured or assembled incorrectly, or installed improperly.

Thomas Brown, P.E. is the principal engineer of Reliability Solutions headquartered

in Duluth, MN. Tom uses his extensive experience to analyze machinery and component
failures, provide vibration analysis, and essential reliability skills training.

Failure Modes: A Closer Look at Ductile and Brittle Overload

Follow up to the article, Preventing Mechanical Failures - An Introduction to Failure Mode
Identification - Feb/March 2012
Thomas Brown
Is an overload fracture ductile or brittle? This question must be answered when
analyzing parts. Mitigating factors that can impact the answer to this question
should be considered when analyzing a failed component.
Metals are frequently thought of as ductile or brittle. However, they sometimes behave
differently when they fail from an overload. A ductile metal may act as if it were brittle. A
brittle metal may behave in a ductile manner.
Ductile materials frequently undergo brittle fracture. Inherently, brittle materials rarely crack
in a ductile mode.
The factors that cause these different behaviors include: strength, temperature, rate of
loading, stress concentrations, size and various combinations.
Strength is the most obvious determinant of a metals behavior when it is overloaded. In
general, soft tough metals will be ductile. Harder, stronger metals tend to be more brittle.
The relationship between strength and hardness is a good way to predict behavior. Mild steel
(AISI 1020) is soft and ductile; bearing steel, on the other hand, is strong but very brittle.
The relationship between strength and hardness of steel is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Steel Hardness vs. Strength

The elongation (stretch per unit of length) percentage, usually given as % in 2-inch length, is
also a means of judging ductility. More ductile metals have greater elongation. For example,
the elongation of harder and stronger 4340 quenched and tempered steel is about 16%,
while elongation of more ductile hot rolled 1018 steel is about 36%.
There are exceptions to this relationship. The most common exception is grey cast iron,
which is quite brittle even though it is fairly soft. Its composition of sharp-edged graphite
flakes creates stress concentrations that override the ductility of the iron.
Temperature has a significant affect on the ductility of metals. Low temperature decreases
ductility, while high temperature increases it. When a part is overloaded at low temperatures,
a brittle fracture is more likely to occur. At high temperatures, a more ductile fracture is likely
to occur.
Lower strength steel (less carbon and alloys) maintains ductility (toughness) as temperature
decreases. When steel strength increases (more carbon and alloys), ductility drops more
quickly as temperature decreases.
The dominant factor causing brittle metals to become more ductile is high temperature.
The steels in the Charpy impact test chart (Figure 2) show this change.

Figure 2: Charpy Impact Test Chart

Higher strength steels with carbon above 0.30% begin to lose ductility (toughness) below
room temperature. Low carbon steels (0.20% carbon or less) do not begin to lose ductility
until temperatures reach freezing (32F).
There are exceptions to this relationship. Stainless steels maintain their toughness at low
temperatures. However, stainless steels may become work hardened and also lose ductility.

Rate of Loading
When an overload happens slowly, there is enough time for microscopic movements in the
metal to occur. The metal deforms plastically before finally breaking. Sudden impact
frequently causes a ductile material to behave in a brittle manner. There is not enough time
for microscopic movements to take place. Brittle behavior is often seen in a catastrophic
failure when the overload is very sudden.
Stress Concentrations
Changes in geometry, such as keyways, diameter changes, notches, grooves, holes and
corrosion, result in localized areas where the stress is much higher than in the adjacent
region of a part.
In regions where there is no stress concentration, it is easier for microscopic movements to
occur. In this case, the metal behaves in a ductile manner. A stress concentration does not
allow microscopic movements, so brittle fracture is more likely.
Thin parts are more likely to fail in a ductile manner when overloaded. Large or thicker parts
will behave more like a brittle metal when overloaded because the geometry does not allow
stress to be evenly distributed. Figure 3 shows the effect of size.

Figure 3: Ductile metals behaving more like a brittle metal

Thin parts will usually have a shear lip or fracture at an angle; this is characteristic of a
ductile fracture. The shear lip becomes smaller as thickness increases and the fracture
becomes more brittle.
Figure 4 summarizes the factors that may be present in an overload failure.

Figure 4: Summary of factors affecting overload fractures

These frequently occur in many combinations and are subject to many complications in
specific applications. If they are recognized as trends, they will help guide the analysis.
For example: If a ductile part has severe stress concentrations from corrosion or improper
machining and receives an impact, the resulting fracture will have features of a brittle
The following examples illustrate the importance and interplay of these factors.
Brittle fracture of a ductile material
The roll journal in Figure 5 is made from annealed 4140 steel.

Figure 5: A brittle fracture of a journal. A piece was cut out for metallurgical analysis.

Its hardness was about 190 BHN and elongation 26%, characteristic of a more ductile metal.
The journal fractured as a fully loaded roll was set into stands using a crane. The brittle
fracture happened because three factors were present:
Stress concentrations - severe

The journal had been repaired; the diameter was decreased and a radius cut at the
location of the failure.

A fatigue crack started in the radius, further increasing the stress concentration.

Rate of loading - high

When the journal failed, the roll was being lowered into stands.

Size - large

The diameter of the journal was 4 inches.


Reduce the stress concentrations by correctly machining and repairing the journal.

Failure of high strength plate at low temperature

High strength plate was substituted for mild steel in a conveyor transfer point. This was done
because the mild steel plate was bent by repeated impact of large material pieces hitting it.
As winter approached and the temperature dropped, the high strength plate began to
fracture. It had to be replaced in the middle of winter.
Strength - high

High strength steel was substituted for the ductile low strength mild steel.

Temperature - low

The ability of the high strength steel to absorb energy (ductile to brittle transition)
decreased very rapidly as the temperature fell.


Use thicker mild steel that maintains ductility at low temperature.

Sudden overload
The hoist chain in Figure 6 failed in two places. The fracture on the top of Figure 6 is a
fatigue fracture caused by repeated loading.

Figure 6: Broken link from a hoist chain

The brittle fracture at the bottom of the link in Figure 6 occurred immediately after the
fatigue fracture occurred.
The link deformed, indicating it was moderately ductile (344 BHN). The suddenly increased
load on the remaining side resulted in the brittle fracture. The chevron marks of the brittle
fracture are visible in Figure 7.

Figure 7: Brittle fracture face

Strength - high

The chain was case hardened with a softer core. Tensile strength was approximately
160,000 psi.

Rate of loading - high

When the first fracture occurred, the entire load was instantaneously transferred to
the remaining side.


Periodically inspect chain for damage caused by improper use or maintenance

Take all the factors into consideration that may influence an overload fracture. An incorrect
diagnosis can be hazardous and expensive for all concerned. When looking at a ductile or
brittle overload fracture, remember there is frequently more than meets the eye.

Thomas Brown, P.E. is the principal engineer of Reliability Solutions

headquartered in Duluth, MN. Tom uses his extensive experience to analyze machinery and
component failures, provide vibration analysis and essential reliability skills training.