Want to help solve engineering mysteries? Lessons in forensic engineering are helping students put the pieces together by thinking like detectives.
When something goes wrong – a building collapses, a bridge falls down, a piece of equipment fails – engineers are called to the scene to discover what happened and why. These kinds of investigative skills are an important part of an engineer’s skills repertoire, which is why a new course in Canada is teaching students the ins and outs of forensic engineering.
Forensic engineers apply their knowledge to uncover the causes of equipment or system failures; in some cases, these failures can lead to injury or death. The certificate of forensic engineering at the University of Toronto is the first course in Canada to teach these skills to undergraduate students.
According to Professor Doug Perovic, a materials engineer who heads the course, this type of training emphasises the importance of investigative skills, which Perovic said are not taught enough in other engineering courses.
“As an engineer, if you’re designing, you should always keep in mind that your product could fail.”
Real-world case studies are used to illustrate theory, and a mock trial is used as instruction on how forensic engineers are employed as expert witnesses in litigation.
“It’s taking that final result and then working backwards and piecing together what were the causes, what was the sequence of events to ultimately determine why this happened – the where, when, why, how and ultimately who is responsible,” he said.
“There’s far too little taught in investigative skills … What are you going to use to whittle down through what’s not important – to connect all the dots, to reverse engineer. That is what this course is all about.”
According to Perovic, forensic engineering work is especially important to changing codes and standards to improve public safety.
For example, one of Perovic’s investigations was into serious injuries caused by broken wired glass. Although this glass was designed to fire-proof buildings, it was found that it smashed easily due to air cavities between the wire and glass.
Perovic was able to detect these cavities using an electron microscope. Following the investigation, building standards were amended to remove wired glass from the safety glass category.
“Forensic engineering is looking at when something fails. As an engineer, if you’re designing, you should always keep in mind that your product could fail,” said Jennifer Dixon, a materials engineering student who took the course.
“You’ve really got to think about what it is you’re making, how you’re sticking to the guidelines and how it’s safe – otherwise you end up in court with the forensic engineers.”
In Australia, forensic engineers often act as expert witnesses in court and are involved in a wide range of investigations requiring different specialised technical skills.
As an indication of the range of skills involved, the Forensic Engineering Society of Australia (FESA) has recently hosted presentations on falls on steps and stairs, faulty aluminium milk pods and fires caused by plastic electrolytic capacitors in equipment such as evaporative cooler compressors.
Another high-profile forensic engineering investigation followed the 2014 Docklands apartment tower fire in Melbourne, which led to an audit by the Victorian Building Association of untested external cladding in high-rise buildings.