Original Paper

Science and Engineering Ethics

, Volume 19, Issue 3, pp 913-944

Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.

Failure of Engineering Artifacts: A Life Cycle Approach

  • Luca Del FrateAffiliated withFaculty of Technology, Policy and Management, Delft University of Technology Email author 


Failure is a central notion both in ethics of engineering and in engineering practice. Engineers devote considerable resources to assure their products will not fail and considerable progress has been made in the development of tools and methods for understanding and avoiding failure. Engineering ethics, on the other hand, is concerned with the moral and social aspects related to the causes and consequences of technological failures. But what is meant by failure, and what does it mean that a failure has occurred? The subject of this paper is how engineers use and define this notion. Although a traditional definition of failure can be identified that is shared by a large part of the engineering community, the literature shows that engineers are willing to consider as failures also events and circumstance that are at odds with this traditional definition. These cases violate one or more of three assumptions made by the traditional approach to failure. An alternative approach, inspired by the notion of product life cycle, is proposed which dispenses with these assumptions. Besides being able to address the traditional cases of failure, it can deal successfully with the problematic cases. The adoption of a life cycle perspective allows the introduction of a clearer notion of failure and allows a classification of failure phenomena that takes into account the roles of stakeholders involved in the various stages of a product life cycle.


Failure Life cycle Failure analysis Product development Failure trajectory Sustainability