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Structural integrity and failure

Structural integrity and failure is an aspect of engineering which deals with the ability of a structure to support a designed load (weight, force, etc...) without breaking, tearing apart, or collapsing, and includes the study of breakage that has previously occurred in order to prevent failures in future designs.

Structural integrity is the term used for the performance characteristic applied to a component, a single structure, or a structure consisting of different components. Structural integrity is the ability of an item to hold together under a load, including its own weight, resisting breakage or bending. It assures that the construction will perform its designed function, during reasonable use, for as long as the designed life of the structure. Items are constructed with structural integrity to ensure that catastrophic failure does not occur, which can result in injuries, severe damage, death, and/or monetary losses.

Structural failure refers to the loss of structural integrity, which is the loss of the load-carrying capacity of a component or member within a structure, or of the structure itself. Structural failure is initiated when the material is stressed beyond its strength limit, thus causing fracture or excessive deformations. In a well-designed system, a localized failure should not cause immediate or even progressive collapse of the entire structure. Ultimate failure strength is one of the limit states that must be accounted for in structural engineering and structural design.

Structural integrity is the ability of a structure or a component to withstand a designed service load, resisting structural failure due to fracture, deformation, or fatigue. Structural integrity is a concept often used in engineering, to produce items that will not only function adequately for their designed purposes, but also to function for a desired service life.

  • The first, whether due to size, shape, or the choice of material, is that the structure is not strong and tough enough to support the load. If the structure or component is not strong enough, catastrophic failure can occur when the overstressed construction reaches a critical stress level.
  • The second is instability, whether due to geometry, design or material choice, causing the structure to fail from fatigue or corrosion. These types of failure often occur at stress points, such as squared corners or from bolt holes being too close to the material's edge, causing cracks to slowly form and then progress through cyclic loading. Failure generally occurs when the cracks reach a critical length, causing breakage to happen suddenly under normal loading conditions.
  • The third type of failure is caused by manufacturing errors. This may be due to improper selection of materials, incorrect sizing, improper heat treating, failing to adhere to the design, or shoddy workmanship. These types of failure can occur at any time, and are usually unpredictable.
  • The fourth is also unpredictable, from the use of defective materials. The material may have been improperly manufactured, or may have been damaged from prior use.
  • The fifth cause of failure is from lack of consideration of unexpected problems. Vandalism, sabotage, and natural disasters can all overstress a structure to the point of failure. Improper training of those who use and maintain the construction can also overstress it, leading to potential failures.
  • Feld, Jacob; Carper, Kenneth L. (1997). Construction Failure. John Wiley & Sons. .
  • Lewis, Peter R. (2007). Disaster on the Dee. Tempus.
  • Petroski, Henry (1994). Design Paradigms: Case Histories of Error and Judgment in Engineering. Cambridge University Press. .
  • Scott, Richard (2001). In the Wake of Tacoma: Suspension Bridges and the Quest for Aerodynamic Stability. ASCE Publications. .


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