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Every Face Tells a Story


Materials Engineers Count On It

There is an old adage that every face tells a story. Some alternative medical practitioners suggest that a person’s face holds clues to the life they have lived and can be a diagnostic tool for detecting signs of existing ailments as well as predispositions to illness of mind, body and spirit. Materials Engineers hold similar perspectives when it comes to diagnosing failures.

Fracture faces, the exposed surface of a part or component resulting from a break, contain a remarkable amount of valuable information about the broken part’s history and eventual failure. The tricky part is reading the fracture face to uncover the story - it’s kind of like interpreting ancient Egyptian symbols. With the proper training and skill set, one can examine a fracture face and determine where the fracture started, as well as the mode of failure: did the part brake because it was pulled apart or twisted; was the part fatigued or did something or someone impact it causing the break?  

Modes of failure vary considerably. Sometimes contaminants introduced into the operating environment interfere with proper equipment operation. Alternatively, excessive load conditions often lead to component failure. It is even possible that design can be a contributing factor. In nearly all insurance claim investigations involving a failed part or component the question that is posed is: did the failure contribute to the incident or was the failure a victim of the incident? Answering this question is critical to resolving the issue of liability and/or subrogation. Most often, the answer can be arrived at by examining the face.

While each failure investigation is unique, we take a thorough and systematic approach to every situation. Our first step is to collect background information, including the time and place of the failure, a precise identification of the component that failed, the material specifications and service life of the component, the operating conditions, and all relevant inspection and maintenance schedules. Once the background information is collected, we perform a visual examination, which can be done either at the site of the failure or at Sintra Engineering’s testing facilities. In many cases, the visual inspection can diagnose the type of failure, but further testing may be necessary to validate these initial findings.

The first type of testing that we employ is non-destructive testing:  testing that leaves the component or equipment intact. Examples of non-destructive testing include inspection under high magnification, determination of chemical composition using energy dispersive spectroscopy, and x-ray examination. This type of testing can often provide strong evidence of the cause of the failure. Only when more exhaustive testing is necessary, and after all interested parties have agreed, do we carry out destructive testing. Destructive testing allows us to confirm material properties, such as tensile strength, hardness and toughness. Fatigue or cyclic loading tests are examples of destructive testing techniques.

With sufficient information gathered from the failed component, the sequence of events leading up to a failure can be determined. Thus the face has been interpreted and the story is complete.


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