8.5: Likely Failures in Unproven Systems
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“All men are liable to error;”
Whereas the last section deals with component failures in systems that have been successfully operating for some time, this section concentrates on the problems plaguing brand-new systems. In this case, failure modes are generally not of the aging kind but are related to mistakes in design and assembly caused by human beings.
In this case, bad connections are usually due to assembly error, such as connection to the wrong point or poor connector fabrication. Shorted failures are also seen, but usually, involve misconnections (conductors inadvertently attached to grounding points) or wires pinched under box covers.
Another wiring-related problem seen in new systems is that of electrostatic or electromagnetic interference between different circuits by way of close wiring proximity. This kind of problem is easily created by routing sets of wires too close to each other (especially routing signal cables close to power conductors) and tends to be very difficult to identify and locate with test equipment.
Power supply problems
Blown fuses and tripped circuit breakers are likely sources of trouble, especially if the project in question is an addition to an already-functioning system. Loads may be larger than expected, resulting in overloading and subsequent failure of power supplies.
In the case of a newly-assembled system, component fault probabilities are not as predictable as in the case of an operating system that fails with age. Any type of component—active or passive—may be found defective or of imprecise value “out of the box” with roughly equal probability, barring any specific sensitivities in shipping (i.e fragile vacuum tubes or electrostatically sensitive semiconductor components). Moreover, these types of failures are not always as easy to identify by sight or smell as an age- or transient-induced failure.
Improper system configuration
Increasingly seen in large systems using microprocessor-based components, “programming” issues can still plague non-microprocessor systems in the form of incorrect time-delay relay settings, limit switch calibrations, and drum switch sequences. Complex components having configuration “jumpers” or switches to control behavior may not be “programmed” properly.
Components may be used in a new system outside of their tolerable ranges. Resistors, for example, with too low of power ratings, of too great of tolerance, may have been installed. Sensors, instruments, and controlling mechanisms may be uncalibrated, or calibrated to the wrong ranges.
Perhaps the most difficult to pinpoint and the slowest to be recognized (especially by the chief designer) is the problem of design error, where the system fails to function simply because it cannot function as designed. This may be as trivial as the designer specifying the wrong components in a system, or as fundamental as a system not working due to the designer’s improper knowledge of physics.
I once saw a turbine control system installed that used a low-pressure switch on the lubrication oil tubing to shut down the turbine if oil pressure dropped to an insufficient level. The oil pressure for lubrication was supplied by an oil pump turned by the turbine. When installed, the turbine refused to start. Why? Because when it was stopped, the oil pump was not turning, thus there was no oil pressure to lubricate the turbine. The low-oil-pressure switch detected this condition and the control system maintained the turbine in shutdown mode, preventing it from starting. This is a classic example of a design flaw, and it could only be corrected by a change in the system logic.
While most design flaws manifest themselves early in the operational life of the system, some remain hidden until just the right conditions exist to trigger the fault. These types of flaws are the most difficult to uncover, as the troubleshooter usually overlooks the possibility of design error due to the fact that the system is assumed to be “proven.” The example of the turbine lubrication system was a design flaw impossible to ignore on start-up. An example of a “hidden” design flaw might be a faulty emergency coolant system for a machine, designed to remain inactive until certain abnormal conditions are reached—conditions which might never be experienced in the life of the system.