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



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