Forensic Engineering

According to the National Academy of Forensic Engineers (NAFE), forensic engineering is defined as “the application of the art and science of engineering in matters which are in, or may possibly relate to, the jurisprudence system, inclusive of alternative dispute resolution”. These disputes can occur as small civil cases or as large corporate lawsuits, but are often settled before making it to court.

Engineers analyze failures in any of the following categories to conduct legal investigations, which are often initiated due to the failure of a safety-critical component:

  • Product malfunction — such as the breakage of a critical part of a product;
  • Process breakdown — such as a manufacturing process failing to achieve the intended effect;
  • Design lapse — such as the premature failure of all products in the marketplace;
  • Business failure — such as the infringement of intellectual property rights.

These failures can occur in vehicles, such as cars and airplanes, or in structures, such as buildings and roads.

Current elements of forensic engineering can be traced from the company laboratories that traditionally have dealt with in-service failures, fire investigators and ad hoc background investigations into high profile accidents, such as the collapse of the Tay Bridge (Edwards 2002). The process has developed into four main areas of analysis, all of which must be taken into account:

  • Fracture mechanics — analyzing fractures (cracks), some of which can only be seen when magnified thousands of times the original size by an electron microscope scan;

  • Finite element analysis — numerically determining the stresses and temperatures at all points within a structure;

  • Computational fluid dynamics — numerically determining the effects of liquids and gases on components or structures;

  • Impact dynamics — numerical and analytical computations that determine an object or structure’s behavior when struck at high speeds (NAFE 2009).

Within the field of forensic engineering, there are several types of specialists whose specific fields prove vital to an investigation.

  • Civil engineering — involves an analysis of the way in which a road, building, or structure is designed or constructed, and determines whether any errors occurred at any point in the process. Typically focuses on the structural aspects of an accident.

  • Mechanical engineering — examines the moving components of an accident, such as product failure or the way a collision affects an object. Mainly focuses on the dynamics, or movement, of the system.

  • Biomechanical engineering — a subset of mechanical engineering which takes into account the way a human body reacts to an impact or accident. Physical injuries and bodily positions often provide crucial insight into the circumstances of an accident.

  • Chemical engineering — analyzes materials and how they interact with each other. In transportation accidents, is used to study explosions and to determine the influence of gases and fuels on a vehicle’s reaction to a collision.

  • Electrical engineering — studies the software and hardware involved in a vehicle, product, or structure and isolates any electrical or virtual failures, such as frayed wire or a faulty data code. With the increasing computerization of society, this field is becoming increasingly important to forensic engineering.

  • Environmental engineering — determines whether natural or biological factors had an effect on an event. For example, an accident at a construction site may have been caused by severe weather damage or improperly poured soil in the foundation.

Edwards, M. 2002. “Modern Methods: A description of modern methods used in forensic engineering”.

Glanz, J. and E. Lipton. 2002. “In Data Trove, a Graphic Look at Towers' Fall”. The New York Times.

National Academy of Forensic Engineers (NAFE). 2009. “What is Forensic Engineering?”.

The Open University. “Introduction to forensic engineering”.

USA Today. 2007. “Pipe flaw blamed for NYC steam explosion”.