Common Types of Failure in Strength of Materials

pressure vessels

Introduction to the types of failure in the strength of materials

In the context of the strength of materials (also known as mechanics of materials or solid mechanics), failure refers to the inability of a material or structural element to perform its desired function due to deformation, cracking, or other forms of material breakdown under various types of loads. There are several key types of failure modes:

Tensile Failure:

  • This occurs when a material is subjected to a stretching force and breaks or fractures. It is characterized by elongation and eventual separation.
  • Materials have an ultimate tensile strength, and exceeding this can lead to failure.
  • Manifestations: In a standard tensile test, one may observe the formation of a “neck” in a ductile material as it’s being pulled apart. The material locally reduces in cross-section at this neck until it finally snaps.
  • Consequences: Structural elements under tension can fail by stretching and ultimately rupturing. For brittle materials, the failure can occur without any significant elongation.

Compressive Failure:

  • When materials are subjected to compression and can’t bear the load, they can undergo various forms of compressive failure. For ductile materials, it might involve buckling or barreling. Brittle materials may shatter or crush.
  • Manifestations: In ductile materials, barreling can be observed due to the Poisson effect (lateral expansion under axial compression). In brittle materials, compression can cause splitting or shattering.
  • Consequences: Critical in columns or pillars where failure can lead to a structure’s collapse.

Shear Failure:

  • This is due to forces that slide one part of a material relative to the adjacent part. It’s a sliding failure.
  • Materials have an ultimate shear strength that should not be surpassed.
  • Manifestations: This type of failure is often seen at the cross-section of beams, near bolted or riveted joints, or in materials under torsional loads.
  • Consequences: Structural joints may fail, leading to separation of the connected parts.


  • A form of failure is generally seen in slender columns or thin plates subjected to compressive loads. The member deforms laterally, often leading to a catastrophic collapse.
  • Its behavior can be complex and depends on factors like boundary conditions and geometric imperfections.
  • Manifestations: A slender column, when subjected to compressive loads, can deform laterally in a wavy manner.
  • Consequences: Leads to instability and can cause sudden collapse, especially in tall structures or thin-walled pressure vessels.

Fatigue Failure:

  • Occurs from repeated or fluctuating loads over time, even if the individual loads are below the material’s yield strength. Tiny cracks form and grow over cycles, leading to eventual rupture.
  • Characterized by the “beach mark” pattern at the fracture site.
  • Manifestations: Initiation of tiny cracks that grow over many load cycles. The fracture surface often displays distinct regions, including crack initiation, crack propagation, and final rupture.
  • Consequences: Repeated stresses, even if below the material’s yield limit, can lead to unexpected breakages in structures, machinery, and even aircraft components.

Brittle Failure:

  • Involves the sudden and catastrophic breaking of a material without significant plastic deformation. It occurs with little warning.
  • Common in materials like glass, ceramics, and some hard metals.
  • Manifestations: A material breaks suddenly, typically along crystalline planes, with a shiny or glassy surface.
  • Consequences: Since it occurs without significant warning or deformation, structures or components can fail unexpectedly, leading to safety hazards.

Ductile Failure:

  • Preceded by significant plastic deformation, allowing it to absorb more energy before failure. Often seen as necking in tensile tests.
  • Preferred in many structural applications due to the warning signs before rupture.
    • Manifestations: Before breaking, the material undergoes significant deformation. In a tensile test, this is seen as “necking.”
    • Consequences: It’s a preferable mode of failure in many structural applications since it provides visual warning signs before total failure. 


  • Slow, time-dependent deformation under a constant load or stress, especially significant at high temperatures.
  • If continued, it can lead to “creep rupture.”
    • Manifestations: Over time, and under constant load, materials (especially metals at high temperatures) slowly elongate.
    • Consequences: Critical in high-temperature applications like turbines or engines, where components can deform and lose functionality. 

Thermal Failure:

  • Failure due to the expansion or contraction from temperature changes. Rapid temperature changes can cause thermal shock, leading to cracks.
  • Manifestations: Cracking or warping due to rapid temperature changes, or stress development from constrained thermal expansion.
  • Consequences: Critical in structures exposed to temperature fluctuations or those that must contain or resist heat.


  • Chemical or electrochemical degradation of materials. While this is not a mechanical failure mode per se, it can reduce the effective cross-sectional area and material properties, leading to mechanical failure.
  • Manifestations: Oxidation, pitting, galvanic corrosion, or stress-corrosion cracking can all be observed, depending on the environment and material.
  • Consequences: Can lead to reduced effective cross-sectional area of a component, weakening it and making it susceptible to mechanical failure.

Hydrogen Embrittlement:

  • Some metals, especially high-strength steel, become brittle when they absorb hydrogen, leading to premature failure.
  • Manifestations: Metals, when exposed to hydrogen, can become brittle and display decreased ductility.
  • Consequences: Particularly problematic in high-strength steels used in critical applications.

Stress Corrosion Cracking:

  • A combination of tensile stress and a corrosive environment, causing the material to crack.
  • Manifestations: In the presence of specific corrosive environments and tensile stresses, materials can start cracking.
  • Consequences: Components can fail suddenly, even if the applied loads are well below their yield strength.

Impact Failure:

  • Caused by a sudden force or blow. The failure can be either ductile or brittle, depending on the rate of load application and material properties.

In the field of strength of materials, it’s essential to understand these failure modes and their underlying causes. Proper knowledge ensures the safe and efficient design of structures and machinery, ensuring longevity and reliability.

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FAQ: Understanding Types of Failure in the Strength of Materials

1. What are the common types of material failure in pressure vessels?

Material failure in pressure vessels typically occurs due to factors like stress corrosion cracking, fatigue, and brittle fracture. Stress corrosion cracking happens when a material corrodes under tensile stress, particularly in harsh chemical environments. Fatigue failure is caused by repeated stress cycles, leading to cracks and eventual fracture. Brittle fracture, on the other hand, occurs suddenly and without much deformation, often at low temperatures or under high strain rates.

2. How does thermal stress impact the strength of materials in pressure vessels?

Thermal stress arises from temperature gradients within the material of a pressure vessel. When different parts of the vessel expand or contract at different rates due to temperature changes, it creates internal stresses. This can lead to thermal fatigue, where repeated heating and cooling cycles weaken the material. In extreme cases, it can cause cracking or even catastrophic failure, especially if the material is not designed to withstand such thermal stresses.

3. Can the shape and design of a pressure vessel affect its failure modes?

Yes, the shape and design of a pressure vessel significantly influence its failure modes. For instance, sharp corners or abrupt changes in thickness can create stress concentrations, making these areas more prone to crack initiation and propagation. Cylindrical vessels with hemispherical ends are often used to minimize these stress concentrations. Additionally, the placement of nozzles, supports, and other attachments must be carefully designed to avoid weak points.

4. What role does material selection play in preventing failure in pressure vessels?

Material selection is crucial in preventing failure in pressure vessels. The material must be able to withstand the internal pressure, corrosive substances (if any), and temperature ranges it will be exposed to. Factors like tensile strength, corrosion resistance, ductility, and fracture toughness are considered. For instance, stainless steel is often chosen for its corrosion resistance, while carbon steel might be preferred for its strength and cost-effectiveness.

5. How does manufacturing quality affect the strength and failure of pressure vessels?

Manufacturing quality plays a pivotal role in the strength and longevity of pressure vessels. Flaws during the manufacturing process, such as improper welding, inadequate heat treatment, or poor quality control, can introduce weaknesses in the vessel. These flaws might lead to premature failure under operational stresses. Ensuring high manufacturing standards, such as adhering to ASME codes and conducting rigorous testing, is essential for the reliability and safety of pressure vessels.


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