Failure Modes and Effects Analysis (FMEA)


Customers are placing increased demands on companies for high quality, reliable products. The increasing capabilities and functionality of many products are making it more difficult for manufacturers to maintain the quality and reliability. Traditionally, reliability has been achieved through extensive testing and use of techniques such as probabilistic reliability modeling. These are techniques done in the late stages of development. The challenge is to design in quality and reliability early in the development cycle.

Failure Modes and Effects Analysis (FMEA) is methodology for analyzing potential reliability problems early in the development cycle where it is easier to take actions to overcome these issues, thereby enhancing reliability through design. FMEA is used to identify potential failure modes, determine their effect on the operation of the product, and identify actions to mitigate the failures. A crucial step is anticipating what might go wrong with a product. While anticipating every failure mode is not possible, the development team should formulate as extensive a list of potential failure modes as possible.

The early and consistent use of FMEAs in the design process allows the engineer to design out failures and produce reliable, safe, and customer pleasing products. FMEAs also capture historical information for use in future product improvement.

Types of FMEA’s

There are several types of FMEAs, some are used much more often than others. FMEAs should always be done whenever failures would mean potential harm or injury to the user of the end item being designed. The types of FMEA are:

  • System – focuses on global system functions
  • Design – focuses on components and subsystems
  • Process – focuses on manufacturing and assembly processes
  • Service – focuses on service functions
  • Software – focuses on software functions

FMEA Usage

Historically, engineers have done a good job of evaluating the functions and the form of products and processes in the design phase. They have not always done so well at designing in reliability and quality. Often the engineer uses safety factors as a way of making sure that the design will work and protected the user against product or process failure.

As described in a recent article:

“A large safety factor does not necessarily translate into a reliable product. Instead, it often leads to an overdesigned product with reliability problems.”

Failure Analysis Beats Murphey’s Law
Mechanical Engineering , September 1993

FMEA’s provide the engineer with a tool that can assist in providing reliable, safe, and customer pleasing products and processes. Since FMEA help the engineer identify potential product or process failures, they can use it to:

  • Develop product or process requirements that minimize the likelihood of those failures.
  • Evaluate the requirements obtained from the customer or other participants in the design process to ensure that those requirements do not introduce potential failures.
  • Identify design characteristics that contribute to failures and design them out of the system or at least minimize the resulting effects.
  • Develop methods and procedures to develop and test the product/process to ensure that the failures have been successfully eliminated.
  • Track and manage potential risks in the design. Tracking the risks contributes to the development of corporate memory and the success of future products as well.
  • Ensure that any failures that could occur will not injure or seriously impact the customer of the product/process.

Benefits of FMEA

FMEA is designed to assist the engineer improve the quality and reliability of design. Properly used the FMEA provides the engineer several benefits. Among others, these benefits include:

  • Improve product/process reliability and quality
  • Increase customer satisfaction
  • Early identification and elimination of potential product/process failure modes
  • Prioritize product/process deficiencies
  • Capture engineering/organization knowledge
  • Emphasizes problem prevention
  • Documents risk and actions taken to reduce risk
  • Provide focus for improved testing and development
  • Minimizes late changes and associated cost
  • Catalyst for teamwork and idea exchange between functions

FMEA Timing

The FMEA is a living document. Throughout the product development cycle change and updates are made to the product and process. These changes can and often do introduce new failure modes. It is therefore important to review and/or update the FMEA when:

  • A new product or process is being initiated (at the beginning of the cycle).
  • Changes are made to the operating conditions the product or process is expected to function in.
  • A change is made to either the product or process design. The product and process are inter-related. When the product design is changed the process is impacted and vice-versa.
  • New regulations are instituted.
  • Customer feedback indicates problems in the product or process.

FMEA Procedure

The process for conducting an FMEA is straightforward. The basic steps are outlined below.

  1. Describe the product/process and its function. An understanding of the product or process under consideration is important to have clearly articulated. This understanding simplifies the process of analysis by helping the engineer identify those product/process uses that fall within the intended function and which ones fall outside. It is important to consider both intentional and unintentional uses since product failure often ends in litigation, which can be costly and time consuming.
  2. Create a Block Diagram of the product or process. A block diagram of the product/process should be developed. This diagram shows major components or process steps as blocks connected together by lines that indicate how the components or steps are related. The diagram shows the logical relationships of components and establishes a structure around which the FMEA can be developed. Establish a Coding System to identify system elements. The block diagram should always be included with the FMEA form.
  3. Complete the header on the FMEA Form worksheet: Product/System, Subsys./Assy., Component, Design Lead, Prepared By, Date, Revision (letter or number), and Revision Date. Modify these headings as needed.fmea_example2 (1)
  4. Use the diagram prepared above to begin listing items or functions. If items are components, list them in a logical manner under their subsystem/assembly based on the block diagram.
  5. Identify Failure Modes. A failure mode is defined as the manner in which a component, subsystem, system, process, etc. could potentially fail to meet the design intent. Examples of potential failure modes include:
    • Corrosion
    • Hydrogen embrittlement
    • Electrical Short or Open
    • Torque Fatigue
    • Deformation
    • Cracking
  6. A failure mode in one component can serve as the cause of a failure mode in another component. Each failure should be listed in technical terms. Failure modes should be listed for function of each component or process step. At this point the failure mode should be identified whether or not the failure is likely to occur. Looking at similar products or processes and the failures that have been documented for them is an excellent starting point.
  7. Describe the effects of those failure modes. For each failure mode identified the engineer should determine what the ultimate effect will be. A failure effect is defined as the result of a failure mode on the function of the product/process as perceived by the customer. They should be described in terms of what the customer might see or experience should the identified failure mode occur. Keep in mind the internal as well as the external customer. Examples of failure effects include:
    • Injury to the user
    • Inoperability of the product or process
    • Improper appearance of the product or process
    • Odors
    • Degraded performance
    • Noise

    Establish a numerical ranking for the severity of the effect. A common industry standard scale uses 1 to represent no effect and 10 to indicate very severe with failure affecting system operation and safety without warning. The intent of the ranking is to help the analyst determine whether a failure would be a minor nuisance or a catastrophic occurrence to the customer. This enables the engineer to prioritize the failures and address the real big issues first.

  8. Identify the causes for each failure mode. A failure cause is defined as a design weakness that may result in a failure. The potential causes for each failure mode should be identified and documented. The causes should be listed in technical terms and not in terms of symptoms. Examples of potential causes include:
    • Improper torque applied
    • Improper operating conditions
    • Contamination
    • Erroneous algorithms
    • Improper alignment
    • Excessive loading
    • Excessive voltage
  9. Enter the Probability factor. A numerical weight should be assigned to each cause that indicates how likely that cause is (probability of the cause occuring). A common industry standard scale uses 1 to represent not likely and 10 to indicate inevitable.
  10. Identify Current Controls (design or process). Current Controls (design or process) are the mechanisms that prevent the cause of the failure mode from occurring or which detect the failure before it reaches the Customer. The engineer should now identify testing, analysis, monitoring, and other techniques that can or have been used on the same or similar products/processes to detect failures. Each of these controls should be assessed to determine how well it is expected to identify or detect failure modes. After a new product or process has been in use previously undetected or unidentified failure modes may appear. The FMEA should then be updated and plans made to address those failures to eliminate them from the product/process.
  11. Determine the likelihood of Detection. Detection is an assessment of the likelihood that the Current Controls (design and process) will detect the Cause of the Failure Mode or the Failure Mode itself, thus preventing it from reaching the Customer. Based on the Current Controls, consider the likelihood of Detection using the following table for guidance.
  12. Review Risk Priority Numbers (RPN). The Risk Priority Number is a mathematical product of the numerical Severity, Probability, and Detection ratings:
    RPN = (Severity) x (Probability) x (Detection)
    The RPN is used to prioritize items than require additional quality planning or action.
  13. Determine Recommended Action(s) to address potential failures that have a high RPN. These actions could include specific inspection, testing or quality procedures; selection of different components or materials; de-rating; limiting environmental stresses or operating range; redesign of the item to avoid the failure mode; monitoring mechanisms; performing preventative maintenance; and inclusion of back-up systems or redundancy.
  14. Assign Responsibility and a Target Completion Date for these actions. This makes responsibility clear-cut and facilitates tracking.
  15. Indicate Actions Taken. After these actions have been taken, re-assess the severity, probability and detection and review the revised RPN’s. Are any further actions required?
  16. Update the FMEA as the design or process changes, the assessment changes or new information becomes known.