Credits: 3


Prerequisite: ENES220 and ENME382.
Restriction: Permission of ENGR-Mechanical Engineering department.
Understanding the causes of product failures including the political, societal, economic, environmental, and ethical impact of these failures, and the strategies to avoid, postpone, or mitigate them. Students will be encouraged to combine concepts from engineering, natural sciences, social sciences, and the humanities to address these complex issues. Basics of failure analysis, forensics, and reliability engineering and the scientific fundamentals underlying the most common types of failure. Issues of legal liability. Methods for monitoring the existing condition of a structure.

Semesters Offered

Spring 2018, Spring 2019, Spring 2020, Spring 2021, Spring 2022, Spring 2023, Spring 2024

Learning Objectives

Students will study the reasons why structures and systems fail and how the root causes of these failures are diagnosed and mitigated. Students will be encouraged to combine concepts from engineering, natural sciences, social sciences, and ethics to address these complex issues. Students will be introduced to the basics of failure analysis and reliability engineering, and they will learn the scientific fundamentals underlying the most common types of failure (e.g. fatigue, corrosion). Students will be instructed in the approaches that are taken by experts to prevent failures before they occur and characterize them after they occur. This will include the tools, techniques, and information used by experts to diagnose and understand the root causes of failure of engineered products and structures, as well as the strategies employed by designers to create products and structures with higher reliability and longer life-spans. In addition, strategies and techniques to increase structural resilience and mitigate the consequences (e.g., cost, environmental impact, legal liability) that arise from failure will be discussed. Mitigation methods such as condition monitoring, self-reconstruction, and preparedness will be covered along with the effects of government policies and regulation. The course is taught through a combination of readings, lectures, guest speakers, videos, projects, and class discussion of case-study examples drawn from a wide range of products and systems ranging from automobiles and airplanes to bridges and wind turbines.

  • Apply knowledge of mathematics, science, and engineering to the development and utilization of predictive failure models based on the fundamental physics behind the most common types of failure
  • Develop an understanding of the principles of accelerated testing and analysis to screen products for quality defects and reliability.
  • Develop a protocol for conducting a failure analysis to determine the probable root cause of failure within realistic constraints of time, economics, political, ethical, health, and safety concerns. Learn to make design choices that mitigate susceptibility to failure so as to minimize waste and improve sustainability.
  • Enhance the ability to function on multidisciplinary teams and to communicate effectively through a debate and a semester team project.  The debate breaks the class into teams to argue for specific potential root causes for a recent failure in which multiple root causes are possible and the actual cause has not yet been established.  The semester project has teams of 4 to 5 students analyze a historical failure, addressing its root cause, the quality of the investigation, the failure impacts, and changes that were made to avoid the failure in the future. A report and presentation are required.
  • Develop the ability to identify, formulate, and solve engineering problems to get to the root cause failure mechanism in historical cases of failure analyzed as part of the semester team project.
  • Develop an understanding of professional and ethical responsibility through the study of human factors as a contributor to failure and through the procedures developed by forensic scientists to conduct unbiased investigations.
  • Develop an understanding and be able to assess economic, environmental, and societal impacts associated with failure.  
  • Cultivate a knowledge of contemporary issues and develop an ability to use the techniques, skills, and modern engineering tools by studying the causes of recent failures, and then developing ways of avoiding those failures through the selection and location of prognostic health sensors that monitor the environment and the operating state of the system; and mitigating the effects of those failure by developing improved resilience.


Topics Covered

  • Lecture 1: Introduction– What is Failure? What Can We Learn from Failure?
  • Lectures 2-5: Basics of Physics of Failure Reliability Engineering
  • Lectures 6-8: Forensic Failure Analysis Process (i.e. Root Cause Analysis)
  • Lectures 9-10: Fatigue and Fracture Failures
  • Lectures 11-12: Corrosion and Electrochemical Reaction Failures
  • Lectures 13-14: Creep and Stress Relaxation Failures
  • Lecture 15: Polymer Degradation Failures
  • Lectures 16-17: Condition Monitoring and Prognostics
  • Lecture 19: Human Factors
  • Lecture 21: Counterfeit Devices
  • Lectures 22-23: Mitigation of Failure Impacts (e.g. Legal, Environmental, Economic)
  • Lectures 24-25: Designing in Resilience


Learning Outcomes

  • an ability to apply knowledge of mathematics, science, and engineering
  • an ability to design and conduct experiments, as well as to analyze and interpret data
  • an ability to design a system, component, or process to meet desired needs within realistic constraints such as economic, environmental, social, political, ethical, health and safety, manufacturability, and sustainability
  • an ability to function on multi-disciplinary teams
  • an understanding of professional and ethical responsibility
  • the broad education necessary to understand the impact of engineering solutions in a global, economic, environmental, and societal context
  • a knowledge of contemporary issues
  • an ability to use the techniques, skills, and modern engineering tools necessary for engineering practice

Additional Course Information


McCluskey, F. Patrick


Petroski, H., To Forgive Design: Understanding Failure, Belknap Harvard, Cambridge, MA. 2012.  ISBN 978-0-674-06584-0.

Supplemental Materials:

Witherell, C. E., “Mechanical Failure Avoidance: Strategies and Techniques,” McGraw-Hill, New York, 1994.   
Petroski, H., To Engineer is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design, Vintage Books, Random House, New York, 1982.  
ASM International, Microelectronics Failure Analysis Desk Reference, 6th ed.., ASM International, Materials Park, OH, 2011.  
Engineering Case Studies Online – Alexander Street Press

Class/Laboratory Schedule 

  • Two 75 minute lectures per week
Last Updated By 
F. Patrick McCluskey, June 2017