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Art and Science of Failure Analysis

2004 by CRC Press LLC

Failure Analysis



The abundant availability of raw materials in nature is the gift of God to humanity. The invention of technologies to convert raw materials into useful products is the contribution of science to modern civilization. Scientific principles and laws of nature broadly dictate the conversion of materials into components and, thus, the performance of the components in an engineered product. Disregard for these laws and principles leads to deficiencies in design, manufacture and maintenance. The deficiencies may be flaws or defects; these two faults are often incorrectly considered to be synonymous. While a flaw is a deviation from the perfect, a defect is a deviation from the acceptable. All the defective parts are flawed, but very few flawed parts are defective. Similarly, all defects need not result in failure, but all failures originate at defects. It is, therefore, necessary to identify the nature and source of the defects, which ultimately cause failures in service. An air crash in the Himalayas; a train accident down south; an unscheduled shutdown of a power generation plant; immobilization of a tank in the battlefield; a gun incapable of firing ammunition. There is something common to these seemingly unconnected events: failure of an engineering component to function as its designer predicted. The term failure has negative connotations and signifies malfunctioning, leading to unsatisfactory performance of an engineering system. Even in modern times, in spite of all our technological advances, failures do occur, leading to loss of expensive equipment and invaluable human lives. The consequences of premature failures are quite damaging to society and result in loss of lives and materials. There are myriad reports quantifying the losses caused by material degradation processes such as corrosion and wear. The losses due to corrosion alone are estimated to be at 5% of the gross domestic product (GDP) of any nation, and the loss is about $170 billion per year in the U.S. The loss due to wear in the U.S. is estimated to be approximately 1% of its GDP. If any such estimates of the direct and indirect losses due to unpredicted failures were made much before achieving the design lives of systems, the damages to the economy of any country would be mind-boggling. For example, the seemingly trivial failure of a boiler tube leads to the shutdown of an entire power generation unit. The direct consequence of the event
2004 by CRC Press LLC

is the loss of power generation. The indirect effects of the unavailability of power are loss of production in the manufacturing sector, stoppage of railway traction, immense inconvenience due to nonfunctionality of all electrical gadgetry, etc. The total loss can be significant if one considers all the consequential damages of the power failure. It is, therefore, imperative and customary to minimize losses by careful failure analysis and correct implementation of remedial measures. Though finding the cause of failure has been a fascination of humans from the beginning of history, the necessity of learning from mistakes continues to be the driving force for failure analysis. Avoidance of failures or their recurrence through failure analysis is a sure way to minimize economic losses. Thus, a failure analyst has a significant role to play in society.


Qualities of a Failure Analyst

Failure analysis is a daunting and demanding task. The analyst has to take a comprehensive approach, covering a large spectrum of disciplines, to arrive at the correct cause of failure. He or she should also be endowed with certain qualities to be successful: comprehensive knowledge of the field; adequate knowledge of related fields; knack for gathering information; ability to filter disinformation; an eye for minor details; absolute honesty and integrity; and lots of common sense. The failure analyst must possess adequate professional qualifications and hands-on experience in the relevant field and should strive to keep abreast of latest developments. Inadequacy in either the qualifications or the experience of the failure analyst invariably leads to disastrous consequences. It is not uncommon to hear of sulphate inclusions in steel purely because a qualified chemist does the metallurgists job! The failure analyst should possess broad understanding of the operation of the system to which the failed component belongs. Though it is not possible for any failure analyst to know about every system, adequate knowledge can be assimilated by discussing the functional aspects of the system with the users. It is absolutely necessary that the failure analyst be familiar with the functional aspects of the system being analyzed, such as loads, operating conditions, etc., by thoroughly interacting with the shop floor engineers. Such an interaction with shop floor engineers not only helps in developing better understanding of the functional aspects of the system, but also helps the failure analyst to win their confidence. While dealing with the failure of complex systems, it is desirable to create a failure analysis team, drawing experts from design, production, operation, maintenance and materials science. The failure analyst should be able to seek complete information about the design, engineering and operational aspects of the system in which the failed
2004 by CRC Press LLC

component was a subsystem. Ideally, it is best to collect information from different interest groups, though there is an inherent danger of the failure analyst becoming biased for or against the theories proposed. The information channels should be kept open until completion of the investigation. Experience suggests that after preliminary tests, more specific queries can be put forth and correct information can be obtained in support of the line of investigation. Like a forensic expert, the failure analyst must critically examine all the information. The failure analysts ability to filter out distorted information furnished by different agencies is of paramount importance. It is necessary to remember that the culprits intentionally leave clues at the site of the crime to mislead the sleuths. Though it is impossible to identify useful information from the total collected a priori, it is relatively easy to differentiate between a lie and the truth after the completion of a preliminary investigation. The expertise to look for seemingly insignificant scientific detail is the quality that differentiates successful failure analysts from the rest. When a research metallurgist examines the microstructure of a quenched and tempered lowalloy steel, he sees how nice the laths are, how fine the carbides are, and how good the overall microstructure is. In contrast, when a forensic metallurgist examines the same sample, he not only observes the overall microstructure but also looks for evidence of decarburization, grain size, inclusion morphology and population, the presence of cracks and the path they take in relation to the microstructural features, and so on. This in effect means that failure analysts look at all the good and bad features of a component. The process of finding out the correct cause of failure through a systematic and scientific investigation centers around the scientific capability, honesty and integrity of the investigators. If the failure analyst lacks integrity, the scientific data generated on the failed component can intentionally be misinterpreted by putting forth wrong reasoning. Once a wrong cause is reported, it is difficult to correct the damage even if the correct diagnosis is made subsequently by more competent analysts, because of the usual tendency of interested parties to use the findings to suit their convenience. All successful people are gifted with extraordinary common sense, and a successful failure analyst is no exception. The need for practical wisdom will be felt by the failure analysts and the assisting team at every stage of the failure analysis, be it in filtering out disinformation or in disregarding misleading experimental evidence.


Ethics in Failure Analysis

The efficiency of the solutions derived from the failure analysis to avoid recurrence of failures depends on the ethics followed by the involved institutions and honesty of the individuals associated with the investigation. To ensure

2004 by CRC Press LLC

that the investigation is undertaken without bias or prejudice, it is necessary to 1. entrust the responsibility of failure analysis to a team whose members are endowed with sound technical judgment and irrefutable integrity, 2. ensure independence of the investigation team, 3. avoid the presence of pressure groups in the investigation team, and 4. empower the investigation team to implement the remedial measures and reassess the performance. If the investigation team is not competent and honest, the findings tend to be ambiguous and do not address the critical issues, leading to no real benefit from the whole exercise. Intrainstitutional investigation teams are generally constrained and seldom exhibit the independence needed to record the facts. Failing to find relevant information and distorting the facts related to the failure is too common a practice to be ignored. It is, therefore, desirable to consider all of these factors while creating an investigation team.

2004 by CRC Press LLC