Alan Sentman, Ph.D.
Plastic and rubber materials benefit countless industrial and consumer products. The functional performance of the products is influenced by the base polymer, additives, design features, process conditions that convert the raw materials to finished products, and the operating environment. Within the context of scientific and engineering investigations, a material or product is said to have “failed” whether the event was intentional, expected, or unexpected. In the laboratory environment, for example, materials are intentionally tested to “failure” as part of quality assurance procedures or product improvement initiatives. In the field, materials or products may fail in an expected manner because of obvious abuse. In other instances, the cause of failure may be less obvious and unexpected. Failure analysis serves to identify, elucidate, and explain the root cause of a material or product failure. Failure can include breakage, distortion, development of objectionable optical features, contamination, or discoloration, for example. Numerous chemical and physical methods of analysis are typically used to perform failure analysis.
Each part of this four-part series describes the application of specific analytical methods to determine the contribution to failures from material selection, manufacturing method, design features, environmental factors, and use and abuse.