Learning from engineering failures is how technology advances. Because when engineers push the boundaries of technology, failures become inevitable.
The key is to spend as much time studying failures as you would designing. Especially, when you operate on the cutting edge of technology. Failures give you insight into how to improve standstill lackluster designs.
It’s important to note though, failures are an inherent part of the design process for new technology. Without failures, it means we’re not pushing the limits of technology. Engineers wouldn’t be designing bigger, faster, and more resilient things.
What’s more, engineers create designs per set specifications. If a design doesn’t meet specifications but doesn’t fail, it’s still considered a failure.
In our discussion, we’ll go over 4 important lessons to learn from engineering failures.
#1 Reverse engineering failures to improve designs
You can only reverse engineer a failure if you have properly set up data collection devices and done your due diligence before testing. This includes placing cameras and sensors in the appropriate locations. Every test is an opportunity to gather data, and the more data you collect, the better you can improve your design.
This is particularly important when a failure could result in significant financial loss or can hurt people. For example, SpaceX has cameras and sensors placed all around its rocket launch pad. It’s heartwrenching when a multi-million dollar rocket explodes. But what’s even worse is if you don’t learn anything from the explosion.
Similarly, cars weren’t one day made perfectly safe for us to drive. Years of testing and crash data enabled manufacturers to build safe and reliable cars. And it’s difficult to say, but the deaths of many people have shaped the car designs of today. Something many people forget about when it comes to the realities of modern technologies and comforts.
#2 Students learning from engineering failures
In 1940, the Tacoma Narrow Bridge collapsed in a spectacular and frightening fashion.
When I first saw the footage as a child, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I never knew a solid structure could move in such a manner. It was a huge disaster, which highlighted poor design and engineering.
Although it was a huge catastrophe, a bright light shone through. 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. They learned the importance of proper analysis for bridges and all other designs.
Now, today, bridges are larger, longer, and safer. This shows how a step back leads to two steps forward.
#3 Risk management to avoid engineering failures
After you determine the cause of a failure, you need to work to prevent future failures.
In many instances, failures are due to shortcomings in the engineering process. Common failures found in both the physical and digital worlds include the following:
- Making mistakes in the design process (e.g. incorrect calculations)
- Not thoroughly checking all assembled parts and components during construction and manufacturing
- Relying on third parties for quality checking
- Using uncalibrated equipment
- Not following scheduled maintenance
- Making programming mistakes and/or using incomplete code
- Not researching software and security limitations
- Relying on outsourced firms to code essential software parts
The cause of these issues typically defaults to the following:
- Lack of proper design reviews from qualified reviewers
- Lack of a set protocol for design steps, leading to engineers skipping critical design steps
- Poor documentation, making design review difficult, especially after a failure
- Junior engineers leading projects instead of skilled senior engineers
- Loosely following codes and regulations
By following these criteria, the percentage of failures drops drastically.
However, some firms may have a relaxed stance on these criteria. I compare it to baking the same cake 1000 times. On the 1001 time, you wouldn’t pull out your recipe sheet and measure every ingredient, because you know the recipe like the back of your hand. The same philosophy applies to some engineers.
You can call it having an intuitive feel for your work, while others may view it as being lazy. Whatever you call it though, it’s poor engineering and you’re opening yourself up to mistakes. Additionally, you’re not adhering to the ethical principles in engineering.
Because, unlike baking the same cake, no two engineering projects are identical.
#4 Preventing engineering failures through ethics
Risk management is closely related to engineering ethics. Whether you hold a P.E. license or work in a license-exempt industry, you have a responsibility to the general public, your client, and your employer. To fulfill this responsibility, you need to do the following:
- Practice only in the fields of engineering you’re knowledgeable and qualified in
- Prioritize the safety, health, and welfare of the public in all of your work
- Communicate truthfully and objectively in any public statements
- Avoid deception in all of your work and interactions
- Maintain high ethical, honorable, and lawful standards to uphold the reputation and integrity of the engineering profession.
In summary, through good ethics, you can minimize engineering failures. Especially those sourced from negligence.
Learning from engineering failures is an art. It allows us to incrementally improve our technologies.
Unfortunately, the amazing technologies of today are a result of decades of lost lives. 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. So, when they do happen, they become the best learning tools.
I just hope failures come from pushing technology forward, and not from negligence. All the while, we do our damndest to prevent loss of life.
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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Koosha started Engineer Calcs in 2020 to help people better understand the engineering and construction industry, and to discuss various science and engineering-related topics to make people think. He has been working in the engineering and tech industry in California for over 15 years now and is a licensed professional electrical engineer, and also has various entrepreneurial pursuits.
Koosha has an extensive background in the design and specification of electrical systems with areas of expertise including power generation, transmission, distribution, instrumentation and controls, and water distribution and pumping as well as alternative energy (wind, solar, geothermal, and storage).
Koosha is most interested in engineering innovations, the cosmos, our history and future, sports, and fitness.