All failures are caused by human errors, of which there are
three general types:
Errors of knowledge
Errors of performance (which might be caused by negligence), or
Errors of intent (which may come down to acts of greed)
What are often called “acts
of God” are more or less widely spaced natural events, such
as the flooding associated with unusually large storms, earthquakes, and so
forth. In terms of geologic time rather than the very short human experience,
these events are certainties, not exceptions. They will happen, given enough
time. Failures associated with “acts of God” are, again, the results of
under-design for the actual conditions the component or system faces in service. (reference:
(reference: Dr. Zee)
Errors of knowledge usually involve insufficient knowledge,
education, training, and/or experience. Here are a few examples of such errors
of knowledge :
Ancient Romans used lead in their wine goblets. Using them over long periods produced lead poisoning and ultimately insanity. 19th century Arctic explorers repeated this failure in their food containers.
Dendrite growth on metals in conductive ionic environments produces short circuits in electronic components for computers.
Hydrogen Embrittlement (HE) causes otherwise stable high strength steel components to fail.
Degassing produces bubbles and ultimately corrosion in coated cast iron pipes.
Internal and external corrosion of gas lines in the early 20th century caused frequent urban explosions.
NASA Shuttle disasters involved both O-ring and ceramic insulation failures.
Errors of performance result from lack of sufficient care or from negligence. Negligence involves such things as misreading of drawings, inadequate specifications, and defective manufacturing and workmanship. Some examples are:
Recent NASA failures in a Mars mission involved the incorrect conversion from the English to the Metric System of measurement in a computer program.
The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant accident involved a major failure in design of the safety system.
Failures in Human Breast Implants involve an insufficiently durable packaging for the silicone materials of which the implants were made. Explosions of natural gas have been caused by the spark from a car’s ignition being started next to a leaking pipeline.
Errors of intent very commonly involve greed. Greed leads to actions usually carried out with a conscious or unconscious denial of full knowledge of the potential consequences. In other words, the perpetrators convince themselves that their actions will not have serious impacts. For example:
Cost reduction driving design of military vehicles causing premature failures.
Exxon Valdez and many other oil tanker spills were caused by using single hulls in super tankers.
Aloha stadium superstructure corrosion failures were caused by lack of surface preparation and poor materials and coating selection.
Failure of bonding of steel belts in Firestone radial tires on Ford SUV’s caused many roll-over accidents.
An interesting example of combining various types of errors is found in the production of galvanized steel. Since the 1930's it has been known that introduction of approximately 0.15% of aluminum into a hot-dip galvanizing bath will cause the formation of a thin aluminum-iron-zinc intermetallic layer at the steel surface. This intermetallic layer acts as a barrier to iron migration into the zinc, preventing the formation of brittle iron-zinc intermetallics. With this Al-Fe-Zn layer in place, when the galvanized component is bent during service, the zinc layer deforms plastically, rather than fracturing. When manufacturers experience high rates of cracking in their galvanizing layers, they have often let the aluminum concentration in their galvanizing bath slip out of control.
This failure may be a combination of all three kinds of errors. The manufacturer may simply not know that the aluminum concentration is so vital to the success of his product, he may just be letting his quality control function slip out of negligence, or he may be unwilling to spend the money necessary to mount an effective quality control program in his plant.
These ideas provide the philosophical underpinnings for a study of failures. It is important to recognize that many failures are preventable if we understand the materials and their intended applications well enough and are willing to pay the required costs for safety and durability.