Types of Mechanical Failure

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What are the 2 types of mechanical failure?

Mechanical failures can be broadly categorized into two main types:

Ductile Failure:

Description: Ductile materials typically undergo significant plastic deformation before failure. These materials can absorb a substantial amount of energy before failing.


Slow propagation of failure.

Warning signs like noticeable deformation or stretching are usually present before catastrophic failure.

Often preferred in design because of the warning signs they give before breaking.

Examples: Many metals like mild steel exhibit ductile failure, where they might elongate considerably before breaking.

Brittle Failure:

Description: Brittle materials fail suddenly and typically without significant plastic deformation. They are unable to absorb a large amount of energy during fracture.


Rapid, sudden failure.

Little or no warning signs before catastrophic failure.

Can be problematic in design because of the sudden nature of the failure.

Examples: Glass, cast iron, and many ceramics can experience brittle failure, breaking suddenly without noticeable deformation.

It’s essential to understand the expected failure mode of materials when designing components, especially for safety-critical applications. For instance, while brittle materials might offer higher strengths than ductile materials, their unpredictable nature of failure can be a concern. Conversely, ductile materials, while potentially less strong, can provide warnings and a degree of “forgiveness” before catastrophic failure. Proper material selection, considering these failure modes, is crucial in engineering and design.

Brittle Failure

Ductile Failure:

Deeper Understanding:

Ductile failure is associated with materials that undergo substantial plastic (permanent) deformation when subjected to stress. The atomic bonds in ductile materials rearrange and slide over each other under stress, allowing the material to deform without immediate rupture.


Safety: Because of the slow progression of failure, ductile materials provide a safety margin. In applications where warning signs before failure are crucial (e.g., bridges or aircraft structures), the use of ductile materials can be beneficial.

Energy Absorption: These materials can absorb significant amounts of energy when deformed, making them suitable for impact-resistant applications, like car bumpers or helmets.

Factors Affecting Ductility:

Temperature: Ductility usually increases with temperature. This is why materials that are ductile at room temperature might become brittle at very low temperatures, a phenomenon observed in some steels.

Rate of Loading: Faster loading rates can reduce apparent ductility. A material loaded rapidly might not exhibit as much plastic deformation before breaking as it would under slow loading.

Brittle Failure:

Deeper Understanding:

In brittle failure, materials break suddenly under stress, often with a characteristic “snapping” sound. On the microscopic level, cracks in brittle materials propagate rapidly without significant plastic deformation.


No Warning: The primary concern with brittle failure is its unpredictability. Systems or structures made from brittle materials can fail without any noticeable warning.

High Strength: Many brittle materials, despite their brittleness, are remarkably strong. For example, glass can be exceptionally strong under compression.

Factors Affecting Brittleness:

Temperature: As mentioned, materials that are ductile at room temperature can become brittle at lower temperatures. This transition is known as the ductile-to-brittle transition.

Impurities: In metals, certain impurities can increase brittleness. For instance, the presence of sulfur can make iron more brittle.

Grain Size: In polycrystalline materials, grain size can influence brittleness. Typically, smaller grain sizes enhance ductility, while larger grain sizes can promote brittleness.

Strain Rate Sensitivity:

Both ductile and brittle behaviors can be influenced by the rate at which the material is deformed (strain rate). For instance, silly putty can act like a liquid when deformed slowly, stretching and sagging, but if you pull it quickly, it snaps, showing a more brittle behavior. This phenomenon highlights the importance of considering operational conditions and potential dynamic loads in material selection.

Environmental Effects:

Environmental factors, such as moisture, can also affect a material’s failure mode. Corrosion can degrade metals, making them more susceptible to brittle fractures. In polymers, exposure to UV light or chemicals can reduce ductility.

Microstructural Considerations:

The microstructure of materials plays a pivotal role in determining failure mode. In metals, the arrangement of grains, the presence of inclusions, and the distribution of secondary phases can all influence whether failure will be ductile or brittle. Controlled heat treatments are often employed to refine microstructures and achieve desired mechanical properties.

Safety and Redundancy:

Due to the unpredictable nature of brittle failure, safety-critical systems are designed with redundancies. If one part fails, another takes over, ensuring the system’s overall integrity. This principle is used in designs from bridges to spacecraft, emphasizing the deep-rooted implications of understanding material failure modes in engineering endeavors.

In engineering and design, understanding the nature of failure is as important as knowing the material’s strength. The choice between ductile and brittle materials must be made carefully, considering the specific demands of the application, environmental conditions, and safety implications. Often, a balance is sought, leveraging the strengths of both types of materials. For instance, composite materials might combine the high strength of a brittle component with the ductility of another, aiming for an optimal blend of properties.


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Red River is a leader in prefabricated facilities, modules and packages.

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