MultiMechanics Blog

Learning from Failure (in life and composite design)

Posted by MultiMechanics on Jan 13, 2015 1:13:00 PM

What thing is it, that the less it is, the more we dread it?

In 1511, when this question was posed in the first English-language book of riddles, the answer was "a bridge." Today's answer would likely not be a bridge - as the days of wide-scale bridge collapses are thankfully behind us - but it could easily be something similar. Something related to the parsimonious use of reinforcement in a mission critical part, like a plane wing or nuclear reactor. 

"London Bridge is Falling Down, My Fair Lady"

Since man started working with materials, there has been a tenuous balance between using them in safe ways and using them efficiently. In most projects, there are always compromises to be made between the constraints of time, money, and functionality. It is a design engineer's daunting task to weigh those constraints and make the appropriate decision. 

The first product design engineer, Daedalus_und_Ikarus_MK1888albeit mythical, was said to be Daedalus. Under the constraints of time and materials, he constructed a set of feathered wings for his son Icarus. Icarus was to use the wings to escape their exile in Crete, but was instructed by his father not to fly too high, because the heat of the sun would melt the wax, nor too low, because the sea foam would soak the feathers (even parts from 1000 BC have design allowable s). As the myth goes, Icarus flew too close to the sun, softened the wax which held the feathers together and fell into the sea.

In this case, as in the case of the collapsing bridges, failure was both a source of dread and a source of wisdom. In To Engineer is Human, Author Henry Petroski talks about the vital role that failure has played in the history of our field. If it wasn't for us learning from mistakes, there would be very little progress.  Petrosky poignantly points out, that "the paradox of engineering design is that successful structural concepts eventually devolve into failures, while the colossal failures contribute to the evolution of innovative and inspiring structures."

As engineers look to build innovative products they no doubt look towards Mother Nature and the work of their predecessors for guidance. But unlike mother nature, engineers cannot effort to infinitely iterate until the fittest part emerges.  Further, today's engineers are working with parts and materials that have previously not existed - things that their predecessors could never have imagined. 

The solution to this conundrum is to experiment with parts in a controlled setting. Some engineers resort to making their parts fail in a lab, many times over, in order to learn about the behavior. Others make simplified assumptions about a part and simulate the behavior virtually.  Both have their trade-offs. MultiMechanics believes that with breakthrough virtual testing technology, the downsides of virtual prototyping can be significantly reduced. 


Materials are variable and dynamic – yet it is in our nature to want to control and predict their behavior. We are constantly looking for new ways to coax high-entropy raw materials into something more orderly. Nature does this "taming" through random trial-and-error. As engineers of the 21st century, we are challenged to work smarter and adapt more quickly. 

At MultiMechanics, that is exactly our goal – to help composite design engineers working with advanced materials better understand and predict their behavior, and innovate useful products in a quicker and more cost-effective manner. Further we believe, that with the right tools, you don't have to wait until a part fails to learn from it. 

Let us know what you think in the comments below. For an interesting read, check out Henry Petroski's great book, To Engineer is Human


Topics: Virtual Testing, Composites Engineering