Failure Analysis: A Tool for Prevention and Troubleshooting

Two scientists using a computer to conduct failure analysisEvery product has the potential to fail. This is a simple and accepted truth in the manufacturing industry. However, rather than being paralyzed by this reality, quality engineers can take steps to lessen the impact of a failure—and perhaps prevent it all together.

This is where failure analysis comes in.

What is Failure Analysis?

Failure analysis is the process of collecting and analyzing data to determine the cause of a failure. Failure analysis can also be conducted to preemptively predict risk factors for failure. The goal of failure analysis is to determine what can be done to correct or prevent failure, and also outline any potential product liabilities. Failure analysis can be used in the development of new and the refinement of existing products as a tool for both prevention and troubleshooting.

Preventative Failure Analysis Techniques

Manufacturing quality engineers must actively seek out potential product weaknesses and defects. Being proactive early in the design and manufacturing process ensures product quality and safety, and prevents product recalls or the need to stop the manufacturing process.

Here are two techniques that can be used to prevent product failures:

Failure modes effects analysis (FMEA): FMEA was created in the late 1950s and is one of the first failure analysis techniques. This technique involves reviewing as many components, assemblies, and subsystems as possible to identify failure modes, and their causes and effects. The objective of FMEA is to determine what could possibly go wrong with a product and what safeguards are in place (or should be in place) to prevent failure.

Fault tree analysis (FTA): FTA is a deductive, top-down process in which an undesired outcome (like a product failure) is analyzed. The goal is to create a diagram that maps the relationships between faults by starting at the undesired outcome and working backwards. This technique is often used to assist in designing a system, to show compliance with safety and reliability requirements, create manuals, or to understand how a failure could happen.

Troubleshooting with Failure Analysis

Excellent design, high quality components and an optimized manufacturing process can all help prevent product failures. Unfortunately, some products will still fail, and when they do, failure analysis can uncover the root cause.

Before you start troubleshooting a failure, your first job as a quality engineer is to determine whether or not human errors, such as a mistake during manual assembly, played a role. If you find that there was no human error, then it’s time to analyze the materials of the product.

For example, stains, residues and other contaminants can sometimes lead to product failures, especially when the product contains electronic components. Material testing can be used to reveal what those substances are, and help you trace them back to a misstep in the manufacturing process.

Let’s say you work for a medical device company and you find a stain on a failed electrode. Material testing using Auger electron spectroscopy reveals high levels of calcium, chlorine and potassium, all of which are components found in hard water. Knowing your manufacturing process, you determine that the water used during the rinse cycle is to blame for the stain and the resulting product defect. You can now take action to improve the water quality during the rinse cycle to prevent future product failures.

Other tests and situations include:

  • Plastics analysis to distinguish between “good” and failed parts
  • AES analysis to see what went wrong after a head crash on a magnetic disk
  • IC Testing to determine what caused a circuit board to short

Material testing and failure analysis requires a high level of expertise, and some very high-tech pieces of equipment. If your company is not equipped with the proper knowledge and tools, a materials testing lab like Innovatech Labs can provide you with the help you need.

All in all, product failures are a reality for the manufacturing industry, but you’re not powerless. Failure analysis is an important, accessible tool. Use it!

Learn more about our failure analysis services by getting in touch with Innovatech Labs today.

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