Failure analysts are like the Ghost Busters of the composites industry. When there’s something strange, you give them a call.
Joe Rakow, an expert in composite failure analysis, is asked to help companies figure out how and why product failures occur. Rakow investigates airplane accidents to broken pipelines and fire-damaged wind turbines. However, the industry where he sees the most problems may surprise many: The sports and recreation industry.
According to Rakow, composites are in the hands of a variety or users, which affects the likelihood of product failure. “I get the most calls for things like bikes, helmets and outdoor hunting equipment, like fishing poles, skis, snowboards and watercrafts,” he says. “In the sports and recreation industry, composites are used to increase performance and make high-performance products, which are then used by a wide range of skill users who don’t know how to use them or properly take care of them,” he says.
Howard Lindsay, founder and CEO of Vyatek Sports in Scottsdale, Ariz., adds that the type and manner of failure depends on the product. “Failure is very product specific. Bikes fail differently than lacrosse sticks, which fail differently than baseball bats,” he says. “But in reality, I’d have to say failure occurs most often when a company is pushing the lightweight envelope. For example, bikes seem to have gotten to a point of diminishing returns. The carbon fiber road bikes have chased weight savings so much and are now so thin that they have high failure rates from simple use. These bike frames don’t fail when someone is riding them, but when they’re dropped against a hard object or during a crash. In perfect conditions, you can keep an egg shell fine, but when those conditions are less than perfect, not so much.”
Rakow and others like him try to flush out the flaws so companies can improve their products. “The first step to solving a failure problem is collecting the evidence, which includes obtaining the failed items, photographing them, looking over them and identifying common features,” he explains. As an analyst, Rakow also talks to the end user and the manufacturer to coordinate and piece together scenarios and chains of events. “That process may involve some sort of engineering analysis or simulation,” he says. “Once you can understand how the product was being used and in what environment it failed, it’s easier to pinpoint flaws. Common mistakes I see on the manufacturing end are voids, air bubbles, under-curing of materials or not using the appropriate materials. Most of the times, I find companies have processes and quality controls set up, but sometimes the quality control system wasn’t robust enough or there was an unknown product change.”