Learning From Engineering Failures – 4 Things to Know

Learning from engineering failures is how technology advances. Because when engineers push the boundaries of technology, failures become inevitable.

Now, the key is to spend as much time studying failures, as you would designing.

Especially when you’re operating on the bleeding edge of technology. As the implementation of certain design elements won’t always appear clear to you.

But, failures will give you the added data for clarity to improve your designs. So, learning from failures is the reason why we have such amazing technology today.

I’d go as far as to say failures are part of the design process. Unfortunately.

Of course though, more so for newer technologies. Because no one ever gets things right on the first try.

Plus, just think about it. If designs never failed, it’d mean we weren’t pushing the limits of technology. Engineers wouldn’t be designing bigger, faster, and more resilient things.

Also, engineers design things per certain specs for a given functionality. This implemented design then needs to function without failing.

And if a design doesn’t meet spec, that’s a failure in itself. Even if it doesn’t explode into a ball of flames.

Let’s now go over 4 important things when it comes to learning from engineering failures.

#1 Reverse engineering failures to improve designs 

destruction of the space shuttle challenger
Destruction of the Space Shuttle Challenger on 28 January 1986 (Photo Credit: NASA)

You can only reverse engineer a failure if you did your due diligence before testing.

What I mean is, you prepare for the data collection process from a possible failure. This includes placing cameras and sensors in as many locations as possible when you test.

This way, with every test you can collect as much data as possible. The more data you gather, the greater understanding you’ll have over failures.

Data will tell you where your design has holes. This is why it’s important to capture every angle and analyze every component in a test.

You leave no stone unturned.

This is even more important when a failure can cost you tens of millions of dollars. Or, if your design will become available for consumer use.

Look at SpaceX for example. They have cameras and sensors placed everywhere for each of their rocket launches.

Yes, it sucks when a multi-million dollar rocket explodes. But what sucks, even more, is if you don’t learn anything from the explosion.

In short, every failure is a chance to improve a design making it so much better. What’s more, failures advance engineering more than any successfully operating designs today.

To throw out another example, think of cars.

Cars weren’t one day made perfectly safe for us all to drive on highways. Years of testing and crashes have provided manufacturers with priceless data. Thus, making cars so amazing today.

It’s difficult to say, but the deaths of many people have shaped the cars we drive today. Something many people forget when it comes to modern technology.

I go more into this when I discuss the history of the modern standard of living.

#2 Students learning from engineering failures

In 1940, the Tacoma Narrow Bridge collapsed.

The footage is insane, where the bridge is galloping. When I first saw it as a kid, I couldn’t believe it was real. I never knew such a solid structure could move like that.

But it was real. It was a huge disaster highlighting poor design and engineering. Luckily, there were no deaths.

Through the bridge collapse and damage, a bright light shined at the end.

This engineering failure has become one of the most studied structural design failures. Students of all backgrounds have studied this bridge failure in close detail.

What better way to learn, than from real-world failures?! Studying failures teaches students what to do and what not to do.

Now today, bridges are longer and safer.

This shows how we learn from failures while pushing to design safer and better.

At the same time, it’s an awesome display of human perseverance. It shows how we never give up no matter the setbacks.

#3 Risk management to avoid engineering failures

GDE bridge collapse
GDE Bridge Collapse (Photo Credit: Richard)

After you determine why something failed, you need to prevent future failures.

In many instances, failure is due to a shortcoming in the engineering process. Let’s go over some reasons for engineering failures now. We’ll look at both the physical and digital world.

Physical-world

  • Mistakes in the design process (e.g. incorrect calculations)
  • Not thoroughly checking all assembled parts and components
  • Relying on a third party for quality checking
  • Equipment not tested in intended operational conditions
  • Watered down maintenance efforts causing material failure

Digital world

  • Programming mistakes and/or incomplete code
  • Not researching limitations with certain security measures
  • Relying on outsourced firms to code essential software parts

In both the physical and digital world, the problems default to management inefficiencies. For the most part anyway.

Basically, the following unenforced issues exist:

  • Review: proper design reviews aren’t enforced. Also, reviewer qualifications aren’t enforced.
  • Protocols: a set protocol doesn’t exist in the design phase. Thus, engineers skip critical design steps and mistakes become more common.
  • Documentation: poor documentation makes design review very difficult. Especially after a failure, where every part of a design goes under the microscope.
  • Engineer skill set: low-skilled engineers lead projects. Instead of having senior engineers lead projects.
  • Codes and regulations: not properly following codes and regulations.

By following the above criteria, the percentage of failures will definitely drop.

Now, I understand some firms have a relaxed stance on these criteria.

I compare it to baking the same cake 1000 times. On the 1001 time, you’re not going to pull out your recipe sheet. Then measure every single ingredient one by one.

It’s because you know the recipe like the back of your hand. So, you can eyeball every ingredient. The same applies to some engineers.

Call it building a feel for your work. Or you can also call it becoming lazy in the design process.

Whatever you want to call it, this isn’t a good practice in engineering. Frankly, it’s unethical engineering!

Because unlike baking the same cake, no two engineering projects are identical. They may be very similar, but there are always subtle differences.

In short, when engineers let their guard down, mistakes happen.

#4 Preventing engineering failures through ethics

Risk management clearly ties to ethical engineering.

But proper engineering ethics NEEDS to be the foundation of every engineering company. No exceptions!

Whether you hold a P.E. license or work in an exempt industry, you have a responsibility. This responsibility is to the general public, your client, and your employer.

This responsibility includes the following:

  • Practice only in the fields of engineering you’re knowledgeable about
  • Safety, health, and welfare of the public is your main priority
  • Issue public statements truthfully and objectively
  • Avoid deception
  • Remain ethical honorable, and lawful to uphold the engineering profession

I talk more about engineer responsibilities when I discuss if engineering should be a protected title.

In summary, through good ethics, we can minimize engineering failures. Especially failures purely sourced from negligence.

Conclusion

Learning from engineering failures is an art. It’s what allows us to incrementally improve our technologies.

Unfortunately, the amazing technologies we have today are a result of a lot of blood loss in past decades.

And by no means are failures sought after. In fact, they’re every engineer’s biggest fear.

But failures are simply unavoidable when engineers push the boundaries. Thus, when they do happen, they are the best learning tools.

This is why every engineering firm needs to have a set in place process on how to deal with failures.

Think of a company like Space X. They’ve had many launch failures. Because they’re operating on the cutting edge of technology.

But their failures have given us near reusable rockets for sending humans into space.

I just hope failures come from pushing technology forward, and not from negligence. At the same time, the loss of human lives remains minimal in the pursuit of greater technologies.

What are your thoughts on failures in engineering? What do you think we can learn from engineering failures?


Featured Image Photo Credit: Richard (image cropped)

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