Fatigue is the most common type of fracture in engineered components. Fatigue fractures are also particularly dangerous because they can occur under normal service conditions, with no warning that a progressively growing crack is developing until the final catastrophic failure. The component, whether it’s the outer aluminum skin of a commercial jet or a simple tubular chair leg, often appears to be perfectly sound with no visible distortion to warn of impending failure.
A technical understanding of fatigue requires a comprehensive knowledge of metallurgy, physics, and phenomena like plastic deformation, slip planes and dislocation theory. In fact, there are several competing theories on exactly what happens at a microscopic level when a fatigue crack initiates. But a practical understanding of the process is extremely beneficial and has direct application to its prevention, and the manufacturing environment, as discussed below.
To the non-technically inclined, the term “fatigue” suggests this type of failure is related to the age of a component, that the material is “tired”. In fact, fatigue fracture can occur within hours of a component going into service. Conversely, even large, highly stressed components can operate for decades with no fatigue cracking or failure.
Fatigue fractures result from repeated, or cyclic, stresses. These stresses can take a variety of forms, such as bending (in one direction), reverse bending (back and forth in two directions), torsion (twisting in one or more axis) and rotation. Regardless of the variation in direction, the stress on the component at the point of fatigue fracture is always tensile stress, in which the fracture initiation site is being “stretched”, or pulled in opposite directions. To illustrate this, visualize a tube which is being repeatedly bent in one direction. The side of the tube that is concave when it is bent is being compressed. The side of the tube which is convex is being “stretched”, or subjected to a tensile stress. This is the side on which a fatigue crack will initiate.
Fatigue cracks initiate at stresses below the tensile strength of the material. Tensile strength is the stress, or load, at which a material breaks when pulled in two opposing directions. This load is a specific value for each metal alloy, varying somewhat depending on heat treating and other processing operations. These values are widely available in engineering reference manuals, typically expressed as pounds per square inch in American references. The fact that fatigue cracks can occur at stress levels below the tensile strength of a material is difficult to explain. Theories on this focus on physical and structural changes at the microscopic (0.0001″ or less) area of crack initiation.
Fatigue is a progressive fracture mechanism. Once a fatigue crack initiates, it is driven further into the component with each stress cycle. This crack growth process continues as long as the component is subjected to cyclic stress. Depending on the magnitude and frequency of these stresses, the crack may grow over time ranging from hours to years. Eventually, the crack advances to a point where the remaining intact cross section of the component can not sustain the next cyclic stress load – “the straw that breaks the camels back” – and complete fracture of the component occurs.
In the “real world” fatigue usually – that’s usually, not always – initiates at a location that acts as a stress concentration, or focal point, to the stresses imposed on a component. Stress concentrations take a wide variety of forms. They include geometric features (such as holes, slots, corners and radii), rough areas of surface finish, welds, corrosion pits, and microstructural defects such as inclusions.
The exception to “usually”, the cases where fatigue fractures initiate from component surfaces that are free of stress concentrations, typically result from one of two causes; under-design of the component, or abusive service conditions. Just as all materials have an ultimate tensile strength, they also have a fatigue strength, sometimes called the fatigue limit or endurance limit. Once a component is subjected to cyclic stresses that exceed this limit, fatigue fracture occurs. Fatigue failures of this type are less common than fatigue failures initiating from stress concentrations. Usually components are intentionally over-designed to deal with stresses several times greater than what they would be subjected to in service as a safety margin.
Fatigue crack initiation is the critical factor in fatigue fractures. If the initiation stage can be prevented, fatigue fracture will not occur. It sounds so obvious and simple. It’s not. As noted above, initiation is the most complex stage of fatigue fracture. A low magnitude load, which would have no effect whatsoever on a component in a single application, can be devastating when repeatedly applied as thousands or millions of cycles. The cumulative effect of these cyclic loads are microscopic “shifts” in the material’s structure which ultimately produce a “dislocation” – at this scale it is too small to be called a crack – and the focal point of stress concentration is born. Corners, holes, rough surface finish, welds and other features only accelerate the process. To further complicate the issue, vibration harmonics, dampening of the system, and the environment in which the component functions add a large unknown factor. Collectively, these affects become difficult to predict.
A comprehensive failure analysis, performed by experienced metallurgical or materials engineers is crucial to identifying the true root cause of the initiation of fatigue fractures. To be of value, the failure analysis must identify the cause of initiation and practical cost effective options that will prevent future fatigue failures.