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The Feature Creep

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Stupid Engineering Mistakes

06/01/2006 2:47 PM

Wired has a list of the 10 worst engineering mistakes. I'm more surprised at what DIDN'T make their list.
Surprisingly absent
Tacoma Narrows Bridge
Piper Alpha offshore oil rig
The Tay Bridge
Bhopal
Just wondering what their criteria for selection was; mine is loss of life and preventablity. Any one think of something that should have made the list but didn't?

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#1

Criteria

06/01/2006 2:46 PM

Are we only judging the engineering design of the structure or product, or do we include issues further down the stream, such as inferior materials being used to save money that are below design specifications, human error leading to protocol breakdowns, etc.?

There are a number of major disasters that come to mind, but whether you want to consider them "engineering" disasters is open, however, any discussion using any criteria must include Chernobyl.

You could add the Titanic and its water tight compartment strategy that failed only because of a massive gash in the side caused by human error and hubris.
The L'ambiance Plazza in Bridgeport, CT, that collapsed when inferior building materials were used The Ford Pinto.
Challenger & Columbia.

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#4
In reply to #1

Chernobyl

06/02/2006 9:51 AM

I never really appreciated Chernobyl until I read through the website at www.kiddofspeed.com. I've since learned that the site may be at least partially a hoax (the motorcycle trip part), but the pictures are real, and are very haunting. The one that got me was the picture of the river port, that shows ships scattered in the river that have been there for 20 years now and will be there for a long time to come.

The Chernobyl incident resulted in the complete evacuation of a zone of 30km (18 miles) radius around the plant, called the Zone of Alienation. According to the somewhat suspect kiddofspeed site, the zone can't be re-inhabited for 600 years.

Whatever your criteria, that has to count as one of the worst disasters ever.

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#7
In reply to #1

Engineering mistake?

06/02/2006 4:54 PM

Is it an Engineering mistake if the Engineers catch the error in time, report it to higher authorities, but they decide for economic or political reasons to ignore the Engineers recommendations? That is what happened in the case of the O-rings manufactured for NASA by Morton-Thiokol that cause the Challenger to explode shortly after lift-off, killing the crew.

Thiokol engineers tried to stop the launch, citing potential sealing problems due to the cold weather conditions (+18 deg. F, overnight), but company and NASA officials decided to "take a chance" anyway rather than have an additional delay in an already delayed shuttle mission schedule.

For a firsthand account of how this happened and narrative of the last telecon between MTI and NASA before the launch/disaster use the URL below:

http://oeccombo.cwru.edu/essays/shuttle/telecon.ht ml

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#2

Think back to August

06/01/2006 2:51 PM

The failure of the New Orleans leevee system during Katrina.

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#3
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Re:Think back to August

06/02/2006 9:15 AM

New Orleans was a political failure, not an engineering failure. Politicians would only pay for a Category 3 levee and that is what was built. Unfortunately a Category 4/5 hurricane hit and the levee was not built to withstand the forces.

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#6
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Re:Think back to August

06/02/2006 11:24 AM

Yes, although there's now evidence that the ground in the area of some of the levees is sinking far faster than the rest of New Orleans. The city is sinking at an average rate of 1/5 inch/year, but some of the levees are sinking at 1 inch/year, so when the hurricane hit, they weren't as high as they were designed to be. At the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet (MRGO) canal, the levees have subsided a meter or more since the levee's construction.

Physorg.com reports:

Levee failure may have resulted from overtopping because the levees were too low.

"Data from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers collected after hurricanes Katrina and Rita confirm that water overtopped some levees that subsequently failed. Alternatively, the high subsidence rates the team observed might reflect active faulting or a weak, easily compacted soil, promoting failure at or near the levee base."

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#9
In reply to #3

Re:Think back to August

06/04/2006 3:11 PM

True! And a bigger failure is rebuilding N.O., *Below sea level, * in an area that is subsiding, * that requires constant dewatering by pumps, * in an area that will see more hurricanes. * To preserve a moribund port that depends upon an artificially maintained, overlong river channel, requiring constant maintainence, *which worsens flooding upstream. *In an economically moribund area, so the returning population will not find employment! "Politicians are not born. they are excreted." And they don't listen to engineers, economists, or anyone else with common sense.

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#5

Engineering?

06/02/2006 11:09 AM

Well, to start with, a self-taught engineer should not have been allowed to build the St. Francis Dam, and I would speculate that the ship named VASA was not loaded by the person who designed it. And was it an engineer or a chemist who's responsible for the Firestone tire problem?

You also gotta wonder if the farmer who wanted to produce molasses was an engineer, not to mention that the British equivalent of the guy with the lawn chair and a bunch of helium baloons may not have been an engineer.

I guess people working at "Wired Magazine" really aren't interested in whether or not their list is actual "Stupid Engineering Mistakes;" they may just want to entertain other (ignorant???) people.

The dead-sure (no pun intended) "engineering mistakes" (disasters in most cases) are so numerous, it would take a panel of experts and a lot of arguing to come up with the worst ten of the worst thousand. I'm with you guys on the "what about these" engineering disasters.

And finally, in defense of engineers, who woulda ever thunk that the wind would cause the Tacoma Narrows Bridge to fail the way it did? Tough luck, but we learned how to not build a bridge after that. To be fair, I must say that many other disasters were actually caused by ignorance, stupidity, incompetence, or bean counters. :-)

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#8

Re: Stupid Engineering Mistakes

06/04/2006 6:45 AM

Even in my beloved topic, space, there have been a few embarrassing mistakes. Perhaps the no. 1 engineering embarrassment was the return of the Genesis Probe in Sept. 2004.
The $260 million Genesis mission was bringing back to Earth a set of fragile disks containing billions of atoms collected from solar wind, the first cosmic samples to be returned to Earth from beyond the moon. The disks were so sensitive that even a parachute landing was considered too violent. So NASA arranged for a helicopter to snare the probe as it descends under its parachute. Everything was rehearsed and in place, the probe came in bang on time and on target and then the probe's parachute failed to open! Read more in MSNBC.com.

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