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Endurance Limit – Fatigue Failure

Endurance limit is another way of saying fatigue strength. It may be expressed in “Cycles to failure” as opposed to “PSI”. One of the most difficult questions to answer is a question relating to endurance limit. When someone asks about endurance limit, they are trying to find out how long a finished part will last in an application involving constant/repetitive motion or vibration. Failure may be anything from a small crack to an abrupt and catastrophic event.

While it is easy to see that this is a matter of great concern, there is unfortunately no formula for arriving at an answer based on a raw piece of steel. To accurately determine the response of a particular part in a particular application, the endurance test must be performed on the finished part in a simulation that duplicates as closely as possible the motion of the actual application.

The R.R. Moor Endurance Test, is an example of a test that utilizes bending and rolling contact to test torsional fatigue. [Variable introduced may be; vibration, compression, bending, twisting, rolling, etc.]. This test is extremely expensive and the evaluation period is lengthy. Individual companies, steel mills, and independent test labs, are unable to predict failure based solely on the chemical and physical properties of a type of steel. There are general guidelines published relative to standard SAE steel grades, but those are for general reference only. Steels that have been refined or otherwise modified to enhance toughness or to resist fatigue related failure (Steel produced to Clean Steel Production Standards) would not be adequately represented on a generic chart when it comes to endurance limit.

To repeat; in order to obtain any meaningful data, relative to endurance limits, the finished part must be tested under conditions that approximate actual service conditions. This is frequently done when production run parts are involved, because the quantity offsets the cost of testing. It is generally considered cost prohibitive to test steel for maintenance replacement parts for endurance limit.

Remember.

  1. Generally there is no accurate published data to indicate a universal endurance limit for shaft material.
  2. Reference data published on steel by grade is at best general. It is not an accurate reflection of the expected service life of our material.
  3. Endurance limit relates to “Toughness.” Maintenance steel grades that have been manufactured to Clean Steel Production Refinement have enhanced toughness over their generic SAE or AISI counterparts strongly address concerns about endurance limit.

Steel that fails in service through fatigue related circumstances would have lasted longer if it was “tougher”. Toughness is achieved through an orchestrated combination of core integrity refinement during the production of the steel, combined with a specifically targeted thermal treatment and stress relief.

MAKE IT CLEANER, MAKE IT HARDER, REMOVE STRESS – INCREASE SERVICE LIFE, INCREASE ENDURANCE LIMIT.

Howard Thomas, September 8th 2020

What is Fatigue Failure?

Let’s say you are leaving the house and you see your new credit card on the counter. You replace the expired card in your purse or wallet, but there are no scissors to cut up the old card. So, you start bending it back and fort until it breaks in half; then pitch it. You have just induced a fatigue failure.

So too with steel. A piece of steel that undergoes repeated motion (twisting, bowing, vibration, flex) will at some point fail. Conditions may encourage that failure to be earlier than expected. A nick or gouge at the surface, or an inclusion or defect (foreign element) within the steel may be the likely culprit.

In my experience, most industrial steel shaft failures are caused by fatigue. The failure may begin at the surface of the shaft (surface initiated), or, it may begin from inside (internal). Most common, will be surface initiated. Surface nicks are called “STRESS RISERS”. Think “A chip in the windshield of your car.” If not smoothed out, that nick will eventually become a crack that runs outward until the windshield fails. A Stress Riser is a break in the surface continuity of an item. Through repeated external forces, the surface-initiated nick becomes a fracture; progressing internally through the steel until a point of catastrophic failure. The shaft cracks in half, while the machine is still running. Not good!

If there are inclusions within the metal (microscopic tramp elements), they may contribute to an internally initiated fatigue failure.

What can we do to minimize fatigue type failures? First and foremost, make sure you are working with high quality materials. In the case of steel, make sure it has a high degree of cleanliness, free of internal defects. There are methods of steel production that insure your steel has excellent core integrity. Those are generally referred to as Clean-Steel-Production-Methods. Those methods, such as; Melting in an electric furnace, vacuum degassing, inclusion shape control, stirring, limiting tramp elements, etc. are available to people who require steel that has undergone refining processes. Certainly, you would want to employ those processes for materials that would be used in critical service.

Those processes address the internal portion of the steel. What about the surface? You can process the steel so as to minimize any roughness, nicks or gouges on the surface. If it is a shaft, you may want to insure you have a polished surface finish, even if the tolerance requirements of the application do not require a precision finish. Note that a highly polished surface not only resists surface-initiated fatigue failure, it provides a certain degree of corrosion resistance. Caution should be observed so that you do not get such a smooth surface that required lubricants will not adhere to the shaft. Most commercially available polished shafting will have a surface finish of about 15 micro. When you start getting into finishes much brighter than that, you may want to check into lubrication requirements.

If your finished part has contour changes (keyways, step-downs, grooves, etc), make sure the sharp corners have been radiused and if possible, even smooth out the contour.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT; “Most heavy industrial shaft failures are fatigue related. Toughness resists fatigue failures. Clean Steel Production Increases Toughness.”

-Howard Thomas, December 3rd 2018