Machine Design

What to do when a product fails

It's bound to happen. Regardless of your precautions and best efforts, a time may come when one of your products dies in the field.

Usually the cause is either improper use or the failure of a part.

Safety concerns have become more important in product design. But there's great pressure to develop new products fast. So developers often lack the time to fully test product-safety features. As a result, companies must be sure they have a program in place to effectively and efficiently respond to product failures. Otherwise the rush to market may levy a "pay me now or pay me later" tax on company profits.

The manufacturer must be prepared to react quickly to hazards that might arise when one of its products fails. It must also be ready to give customers enough information to correct the problem.

Unfortunately, many companies lack a program that outlines how to investigate product failures. An incident or "close call" can have serious consequences. There must be a prompt investigation to determine its root causes. The investigation will be more fruitful if it is not a seat-of-the-pants effort.

After a failure, it is imperative that a representative of the manufacturer quickly visit the site of the incident. The representative should ask some basic questions during the investigation, including:

  • Was the product defective?
  • Did the customer misuse it somehow?
  • Did environmental factors contribute to the incident?
  • Could the incident cause injuries?
  • Is it likely to recur? There should be standing policies that establish procedures and guidelines for investigating product failures. Here are a few important points the policies should cover:
  • The initial investigation must start promptly.
  • It must consider factors other than the product itself. Misuse and the incident environment are the two most obvious ones.
  • The policy should specify to whom the investigation findings are reported.

With policies established, they must be communicated to all employees. Personnel must be aware of their responsibilities if a product fails. In some cases your sales and maintenance staff may need special training. Lines of communication should be clearly established, from top management on down.

is a registered professional engineer and a Certified Safety Professional involved in forensic engineering since 1972. Got a question about safety? You can reach Lanny at [email protected].

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