What is Forensic Engineering?
Forensic engineering is the investigation of materials, products, structures or components that fail causing personal injury or damage to property. The field also deals with retracing designs, processes and procedures leading to accidents in operation of vehicles or equipment. Generally, the purpose of a forensic engineering investigation is to locate cause or causes of failure with a view to improve performance or life of a component and/or to assist a court and or an insurance company in determining the facts of an accident.
As the field of engineering has evolved over time so has the field of forensic engineering. Early examples include investigation of bridge failures such as the Tay rail bridge disaster of 1879 and the Dee bridge disaster of 1847. Many early rail accidents pioneered the use of tensile testing of samples and fractography of failed components, one of Forensic Engineering, Inc.’s core areas of competence. More recent failures that have been investigated with the methods and principles of forensic engineering include the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse (1940), the Kansas City Hyatt Regency walkway collapse (1981), the Space Shuttle Challenger (1986) and Columbia (2003) accidents. The same methods and principles used to investigate these failures are applied on a daily basis by Forensic Engineering, Inc. to determine the cause of large and small product and structure failures. Forensic Engineering Inc.’s materials forensic engineering competency involves forensic methods applied to any of the common engineered materials, such as metals, glasses, ceramics, composites and polymers.
Vital to the field of forensic engineering is the process of investigating and collecting data related to the design, materials, products, structures or components that have failed. Competent investigation involves inspections, collecting evidence, measurements, developing models, obtaining exemplar products, and performing experiments. Often testing and measurements are conducted in an independent testing laboratory or other reputable unbiased laboratory.
Trace evidence is sometimes an important factor in reconstructing the sequence of events in an accident. For example, tire marks on a road surface can enable vehicle speeds to be estimated, when the brakes were applied and so on. When a product fails for no obvious reason, Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) and Energy-dispersive X ray Spectroscopy (EDS) performed in the microscope can reveal the presence of aggressive chemicals that have left traces on the fracture or adjacent surfaces that reveal the root cause of failure. Microscopic examination of fracture surfaces often can reveal the mode of failure (overload and/or fatigue) giving the analyst insight regarding details of the failure.
Failure mode and effects analysis (FMEA) or fault tree analysis can be used to examine a design, product or process failure in a structured and systematic way. However, all such techniques rely on accurate reporting of failure rates, and precise identification, of the failure mode(s) involved.
Extracting physical evidence from digital photography is a major technique used in forensic accident reconstruction, another of Forensic Engineering Inc.’s core competencies. Camera matching, photogrammetry, and photo rectification techniques are used to create three dimensional and top-down views from the two-dimensional photos typically taken at an accident scene. The information contained in photographs can be used to create accurate reconstructions, simulations and animations to provide detailed technical support and visual presentation. Please visit Forensic Engineering Inc.’s Services and Staff pages for a summary of our capabilities or give us a call to discuss your needs.
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