Excerpts for Practical Reliability Engineering

Practical Reliability Engineering

By Patrick D. T. O'Connor

John Wiley & Sons

ISBN: 0470844620

Chapter One

Introduction to Reliability Engineering


No one disputes the need for articles to be reliable. The average consumer is acutely aware of the problem of less than perfect reliability in domestic products such as TV sets and automobiles. Organizations such as airlines, the military and public utilities are aware of the costs of unreliability. Manufacturers often suffer high costs of failure under warranty. Argument and misunderstanding begin when we try to quantify reliability values, or try to assign financial or other benefit values to levels of reliability.

The simplest, purely producer-oriented or inspectors' view of reliability is that in which a product is assessed against a specification or set of attributes, and when passed is delivered to the customer. The customer, having accepted the product, accepts that it might fail at some future time. This simple approach is often coupled with a warranty, or the customer may have some protection in law, so that he may claim redress for failures occurring within a stated or reasonable time. However, this approach provides no measure of quality over a period of time, particularly outside a warranty period. Even within a warranty period, the customer usually has no grounds for further action if the product fails once, twice or several times, provided that the manufacturer repairs the product as promised each time. If it fails often, the manufacturer will suffer high warranty costs, and the customers will suffer inconvenience. Outside the warranty period, only the customer suffers. In any case, the manufacturer will also probably incur a loss of reputation, possibly affecting future business.

We therefore come to the need for a time-based concept of quality. The inspectors' concept is not time-dependent. The product either passes a given test or it fails. On the other hand, reliability is usually concerned with failures in the time domain. This distinction marks the difference between traditional quality control and reliability engineering.

Whether failures occur or not and their times to occurrence, can seldom be forecast accurately. Reliability is therefore an aspect of engineering uncertainty. Whether an item will work for a particular period is a question which can be answered as a probability. This results in the usual engineering definition of reliability as:

The probability that an item will perform a required function without failure under stated conditions for a stated period of time.

Reliability can also be expressed as the number of failures over a period.

Durability is a particular aspect of reliability, related to the ability of an item to withstand the effects of time (or of distance travelled, operating cycles, etc.) dependent mechanisms such as fatigue, wear, corrosion, electrical parameter change, etc. Durability is usually expressed as a minimum time before the occurrence of wearout failures.

The objectives of reliability engineering, in the order of priority, are:

1. To apply engineering knowledge and specialist techniques to prevent or to reduce the likelihood or frequency of failures.

2. To identify and correct the causes of failures that do occur, despite the efforts to prevent them.

3. To determine ways of coping with failures that do occur, if their causes have not been corrected.

4. To apply methods for estimating the likely reliability of new designs, and for analysing reliability data.

The reason for the priority emphasis is that it is by far the most effective way of working, in terms of minimizing costs and generating reliable products.

The primary skills that are required, therefore, are the ability to understand and anticipate the possible causes of failures, and knowledge of how to prevent them. It is also necessary to have knowledge of the methods that can be used for analysing designs and data. The primary skills are nothing more than good engineering knowledge and experience, so reliability engineering is the first and foremost the application of good engineering, in the widest sense, during design, development, manufacture and service.

Mathematical and statistical methods can be used for quantifying reliability (prediction, measurement) and for analysing reliability data. The basic methods are described in Chapter 2, to provide an introduction for some of the applications described subsequently. However, because of the high levels of uncertainty involved these can seldom be applied with the kind of precision and credibility that engineers are accustomed to when dealing with most other problems. In practice the uncertainty is often in orders of magnitude. Therefore the role of mathematical and statistical methods in reliability engineering is limited, and appreciation of the uncertainty is important in order to minimise the chances of performing inappropriate analysis and of generating misleading results. Mathematical and statistical methods can make valuable contributions in appropriate circumstances, but practical engineering must take precedence in determining the causes of problems and their solutions. Unfortunately not all reliability training, literature and practice reflect this reality.

Over-riding all of these aspects, though, is the management of the reliability engineering effort. Since reliability (and very often also safety) is such a critical parameter of most modern engineering products, and since failures are generated primarily by the people involved (designers, test engineers, manufacturing, suppliers, maintainers, users), it can be maximised only by an integrated effort that encompasses training, teamwork, discipline, and application of the most appropriate methods. Reliability engineering "specialists" cannot make this happen. They can provide support, training and tools, but only managers can organise, motivate, lead and provide the resources. Reliability engineering is, ultimately, effective management of engineering.


Engineering education is traditionally concerned with teaching how manufactured products work. The ways in which products fail, the effects of failure and aspects of design, manufacture, maintenance and use which affect the likelihood of failure are not usually taught, mainly because it is necessary to understand how a product works before considering ways in which it might fail. For many products the tendency to approach the failed state is analogous to entropy. The engineer's tasks are to design and maintain the product so that the failed state is deferred. In these tasks he faces the problems inherent in the variability of engineering materials, processes and applications. Engineering education is basically deterministic, and does not usually pay sufficient attention to variability. Yet variability and chance play a vital role in determining the reliability of most products. Basic parameters like mass, dimensions, friction coefficients, strengths and stresses are never absolute, but are in practice subject to variability due to process and materials variations, human factors and applications. Some parameters also vary with time. Understanding the laws of chance and the causes and effects of variability is therefore necessary for the creation of reliable products and for the solution of problems of unreliability.

However, there are practical problems in applying statistical knowledge to engineering problems. These problems have probably deterred engineers in the past from using statistical methods, and texts on reliability engineering and mathematics have generally stressed the theoretical aspects without providing guidance on their practical application. To be helpful a theoretical basis must be credible, and statistical methods which work well for insurance actuaries, market researchers or agricultural experimenters may not work as well for engineers. This is not because the theory is wrong, but because engineers usually have to cope with much greater degrees of uncertainty, mainly due to human factors in production and use.

Some highly reliable products are produced by design and manufacturing teams who practise the traditional virtues of reliance on experience and maintenance of high quality. They do not see reliability engineering as a subject requiring specialist consideration, and a book such as this would teach them little that they did not already practise in creating their reliable products. Engineers and managers might therefore regard a specialist reliability discipline with scepticism. However, many pressures now challenge the effectiveness of the traditional approaches. Competition, the pressure of schedules and deadlines, the cost of failures, the rapid evolution of new materials, methods and complex systems, the need to reduce product costs, and safety considerations all increase the risks of product development. Figure 1.1 shows the pressures that lead to the overall perception of risk. Reliability engineering has developed in response to the need to control these risks.

Later chapters will show how reliability engineering methods can be applied to design, development and management to control the level of risk. The extent to which the methods are applicable must be decided for each project and for each design area. They must not replace normal good practice, such as safe design for components subject to cyclic loading, or application guidelines for electronic components. They should be used to supplement good practice. However, there are times when new risks are being taken, and the normal rules and guidelines are inadequate or do not apply. Sometimes we take risks unwittingly, when we assume that we can extrapolate safely from our present knowledge. Designers and managers are often overoptimistic or are reluctant to point out risks about which they are unsure.

It is for these reasons that an understanding of reliability engineering principles and methods is now an essential ingredient of modern engineering.


There are many reasons why a product might fail. Knowing, as far as is practicable, the potential causes of failures is fundamental to preventing them. It is rarely practicable to anticipate all of the causes, so it is also necessary to take account of the uncertainty involved. The reliability engineering effort, during design, development and in manufacture and service should address all of the anticipated and possibly unanticipated causes of failure, to ensure that their occurrence is prevented or minimized.

The main reasons why failures occur are:

1. The design might be inherently incapable. It might be too weak, consume too much power, suffer resonance at the wrong frequency, etc. The list of possible reasons is endless, and every design problem presents the potential for errors, omissions, and oversights. The more complex the design or difficult the problems to be overcome, the greater is this potential.

2. The item might be overstressed in some way. If the stress applied exceeds the strength then failure will occur. An electronic component will fail if the applied electrical stress (voltage, current) exceeds the ability to withstand it, and a mechanical strut will buckle if the compression stress applied exceeds the buckling strength. Overstress failures such as these do happen, but fortunately not very often, since designers provide margins of safety. Electronic component specifications state the maximum rated conditions of application, and circuit designers take care that these rated values are not exceeded in service. In most cases they will in fact do what they can to ensure that the in-service worst case stresses remain below the rated stress values: this is called 'de-rating'. Mechanical designers work in the same way: they know the properties of the materials being used (e.g. ultimate tensile strength) and they ensure that there is an adequate margin between the strength of the component and the maximum applied stress. However, it might not be possible to provide protection against every possible stress application. If a 110V appliance is connected to a 240V supply it will probably fail, and a tyre will burst if sufficiently over-inflated.

3. Failures might be caused by variation. In the situations described above the values of strength and load are fixed and known. If the known strength always exceeds the known load, as shown in Fig. 1.2, then failure will not occur. However, in most cases, there will be some uncertainty about both. The actual strength values of any population of components will vary: there will be some that are relatively strong, others that are relatively weak, but most will be of nearly average strength. Also, the loads applied will be variable. Figure 1.3 shows this type of situation. As before, failure will not occur so long as the applied load does not exceed the strength. However, if there is an overlap between the distributions of load and strength, and a load value in the high tail of the load distribution is applied to an item in the weak tail of the strength distribution so that there is overlap or interference between the distributions (Fig. 1.4), then failure will occur. We will discuss load and strength interference in more detail in Chapter 4.

4. Failures can be caused by wearout. We will use this term to include any mechanism or process that causes an item that is sufficiently strong at the start of its life to become weaker with age. Well-known examples of such processes are materialfatigue, wear between surfaces in moving contact, corrosion, insulation deterioration, and the wearout mechanisms of light bulbs and fluorescent tubes. Figure 1.5 illustrates this kind of situation. Initially the strength is adequate to withstand the applied loads, but as weakening occurs over time the strength decreases. In every case the average value falls and the spread of the strength distribution widens. This is a major reason why it is so difficult to provide accurate predictions of the lives of such items.

5. Failures can be caused by other time-dependent mechanisms. Battery run-down, creep caused by simultaneous high temperature and tensile stress, as in turbine discs and fine solder joints, and progressive drift of electronic component parameter values are examples of such mechanisms.

6. Failures can be caused by sneaks. A sneak is a condition in which the system does not work properly even though every part does.


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