What is Failure Analysis?

TASA ID: 17993

Failure analysis for machinery, equipment and products may be viewed as a series of intentionally planned, sequential activities geared to understanding how the subject component came to be unfit for its original purpose. 

Failure analysis may be undertaken by people from many different career paths and professions. But for the type of failure analysis where something broke / got deformed / corroded / worn out, materials engineers are often involved, because a natural primary question is “Was there something wrong with the material?” When materials engineers get involved, then failure analysis is essentially an engineering process. 

Engineering is based on science, but is not identical to it. The scientist’s ultimate goal is knowledge sought to sooth their burning curiosity. Engineering is less concerned with ultimate truth, and more concerned with using the knowledge that scientists have revealed, along with other available knowledge, for practical purposes. The engineer’s goal is making something happen. Engineers happily use empirical knowledge even in the absence of understanding of any theoretical foundations. 

Science is inherently concerned with understanding how the physical world works- the world of nature, the world of matter and energy. But the human world is part of the physical world. The human experience of consciousness, our ability to perceive the objects of our environment, with or without technological assistance, and human behavior, are all aspects of science. See “Understanding human perception by human-made illusions” by Claus-Christian Carbon at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4116780/--- 

Higher quality failure analysis work results from teams whose members understand the limitations of human cognition. These teams will tend to make fewer mistakes, and will be likely to explain their findings in a more accessible manner.

We humans enjoy powerful engines of thought. We, like many other living things, often process raw sensory data below the level of conscious awareness. This is helpful to get through the chores of daily life, but can be a problem when dealing with an unusual situation. Then, we’re better off using our gift of rational thinking. 

The word rational comes from the word ratio. We can compare two, or more, things, whether they are simple physical items, or complex theories, with each other by holding both in our minds simultaneously. In other words, we compare and contrast. We look for similarities and differences. 

It is this rational thinking skill that allows us to perform both critical and creative thinking. The most essential function of critical thinking is the ability to question the context, to frame the situation explicitly, and to state and communicate, to others, the relevant background. The same mental processes that activate critical thinking also activate creative thinking. Holding the information in mind allows new connections to be imagined.

The high-level thinking skills used in performing failure analysis are most successful and useful when conveying all of the relevant data. Then all of the stakeholders will gain understanding of the factors that allowed the undesirable situation to happen, and will lay the groundwork for prevention measures, if required. 

What scientific fields help the failure analyst understand the situations they investigate?

Physics is required in order to understand forces and stresses, and workings of the analytical instrumentation we use. Chemistry is required in order to understand both corrosion processes and the effects of refining processes on the behavior of the materials we investigate. At least a limited grasp of biology is required to understand some types of corrosion. Geology and astronomy are required to understand the origin and source of the elements which populate the periodic table. 

Science has evolved over the years through the formulation of hypotheses, which are then tested multiple times by multiple investigators. At some point, for useful hypotheses, a consensus emerges among those working in the field. The now duly fact-supported theory gains a new level of acclaim when it is used to successfully predict new facts about the world. Some recent examples are the success of quantum physics in predicting and allowing observation of the Higgs boson. Another would be the success of Einstein’s word in allowing the observation of a gravity wave.

Scientific theories are thus inherently different from a personal theory, in that they have been independently verified by multiple individuals and methods on the way to becoming a theory. It is generally impossible to document the development of personal theories in the same way. It is important to understand the nature of a scientific theory. Despite the redundant verification underlying scientific theory, scientists make no claims of eternal, absolute truth. The very nature of science is that it always remains open to improved versions of its explanations. Scientific theories are models of how the world works. There is no universal theory of everything. Scientific theories tend to emerge from a particular discipline. 

TASA Article Disclaimer

This article discusses issues of general interest and does not give any specific legal or business advice pertaining to any specific circumstances.  Before acting upon any of its information, you should obtain appropriate advice from a lawyer or other qualified professional.

This article may not be duplicated, altered, distributed, saved, incorporated into another document or website, or otherwise modified without the permission of TASA and the author (TASA ID#: 17993). Contact marketing@tasanet.com for any questions.

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