Material failure analysis is the process of scientifically testing physical objects, collecting and analyzing the resulting data to determine the cause of a failure. The goal of failure analysis is to learn how to prevent the failure from happening again or identify who is responsible for the occurrence. Avoiding product malfunction is becoming more critical to manufacturers and contractors because product liability and defense costs increase every year. According to the Insurance Information Institute, in 2015 $2.5 billion was spent on product liability incurred losses and settlement expenses. This cost represents a significant increase from 2014 when these losses amounted to $2.15 billion.
Apart from the financial cost of product failure, failures can have a human safety cost and cause environmental damage. Examples of high-profile product failures include the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986 and the Three Mile Island accident in 1979. Both instances either caused loss of life or costly environmental degradation.

Failure analysis is an essential factor for products in the construction materials manufacturing industry. Manufactured materials such as windows, roof shingles, siding, floor tile, insulation, pipes, electrical components, wires, wood, steel, and concrete are subjected to years of degrading environmental conditions. Failure analysis is a critical tool used in the development of new products, improvement of existing products, and testing of installed materials. Failure analysis may be applied to products at the design stage, finished goods on the shelf, or in the field after installation.

Building materials used in your home or work environment are usually the result of extensive testing to ensure conformance to quality standards. Groups such as ASTM, AAMA, and SIG set many standards that give manufacturers, installers, contractors, and builders the benchmarks on performance and quality. For example, ASTM standard D5179 determines the extent to which a paint sticks to a metal surface. These testing standards exist so that manufacturers can take proactive measures to ensure the materials will pass the test.

At Dallas Laboratories we work with individual homeowners, manufacturers, contractors, attorneys, and consultants to determine the quality of the materials used in buildings and homes. We can also assess the diligence in which they are installed. We get involved both in the product development phase and even after the product has been installed and the failures have occurred. We are called in when someone needs to find out what happened.

Individuals of high-end homes with a value of $2m or larger typically use high-quality materials and custom designs. Very often these custom designs involve modifications to off-the-shelf building materials or use custom-made materials. When a product and material failure has occurred, the damage to high-end homes is expensive with costs above $50,000 and can reach into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. These homeowners need to determine the scientific reason of why the failure occurred so that remediation can be pursued with the original contractor or against an insurance policy.

The root cause of product failures in construction materials are one or more of the following:

Improper installation and application

80% of the time, construction material failure is caused by the builder not following the correct procedure during installation and implementation. Many times, construction workers are under time pressure to get the job done and are not careful to follow the proper process. Sometimes construction workers don’t have the appropriate training and will not recognize the mistakes they are making.

Environmental degradation

All building materials degrade over time. However, building materials are designed according to standards that determine how long they will last and under what conditions. As an example, concrete is subject to rain, heat, cold, chlorides, sulfates, and sunlight that cause degradation over time. Several other manufacturing related factors, however, can lead to accelerated deterioration of concrete. Presence of high levels of alumina or an imbalance of ingredients in the concrete mixture can degrade its strength. In the example of concrete, a failure analysis would involve a laboratory examining the concrete and scientifically test the proportions of ingredients and the presence of alumina.

Manufacturing defects

A manufacturing defect is an output that was not intended by the factory. This defect occurs when the manufacturing result deviates from its intended design and does not conform to the design specification. It is not typical for a US factory to manufacture items with inherent defects. However, failure analysis of construction materials reveals that about 15% of instances are caused by material defects. Today, manufacturers are cautious not to make mistakes because of the enormous cost of lawsuits and litigation.

Willful negligence in construction materials installation

In some instances, a building contractor deliberately does the wrong thing with malicious intent or because they want to save money and time. This is done even though the builder knows failure will occur. These rare instances account for around 5% of the cases reviewed with construction material failure analysis.