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Avoid Manufacturing Disasters = Avoid Million Dollar Mistakes

In engineering, something as simple as declaring the wrong unit of measure can create a disaster costing millions of dollars. John Pike, space policy director at the Federation of American Scientists, stated, “It is very difficult for me to imagine how such a fundamental, basic discrepancy could have remained in the system for so long,” regarding the English to Metric units mistake at NASA1.


Engineering disasters can often be traced back to design errors that creep into downstream manufacturing processes through poor revision control or data compatibility issues. Even small mistakes might have big repercussions, valued in millions of dollars, from lost revenue, corrective work, time delays or investment loss.


Reviewing past engineering disasters provides critical information for avoiding expensive and high-profile mistakes by creating engineering processes that ensure accuracy throughout the design to production lifecycle. Author of To Engineer is Human, The Role of Failure in Successful Design, Henry Petroski states, “…the colossal disasters that do occur are ultimately failures of design, but the lessons learned from those disasters can do more to advance engineering knowledge than all the successful machines and structures in the world2.


Classic Disasters

CAD geometry repairFrench Regional Express Train

Cost of Mistake: $68 Million


Paris, France – May 21, 2014 – France’s main train company, Réseau Ferré de France (RFF), spent approximately $1.83 billion dollars on a new fleet of trains. When preparing to unveil the new fleet, RFF realized that the new trains were too wide for “hundreds of stations.” The station dimensions given to Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français (SNCF) by RFF were taken from the newer train stations, neglecting to take into account older stations with narrow design. As a result, the error will cost another $61 million dollars to modify the older stations to accommodate the new trains3.


NASA Genesis Probe

Cost of Mistake: $260 Million


Utah, United States – September 8, 2004 – Launched on August 8, 2001, the Genesis probe was sent to space to collect samples and solar wind data. On September 8, 2004, the Genesis probe crashed to earth, in Utah. The crash was caused by a critical error: a pair of the probe’s accelerometers were installed backwards. The inversion ultimately prevented the probe from properly deploying its parachute for a landing. The estimated cost of the mistake is over $260 million plus the loss of data since the crash-landing contaminated many of the probe’s samples4.


3D CAD model optimizationThe Hubble Telescope

Cost of Mistake: $1.5 Billion


Space – December 2, 1993 – Launched in 1990, the Hubble Telescope orbits around Earth, relaying back imagery. Shortly after launch, it was found, to the disappointment of many, that the images sent from the telescope were much lower quality than anticipated. What caused that?! The telescope’s mirror had been ground down 2 microns (0.00007874 inches) too thin! The result was sub-optimal light direction generating poor quality images. A repair crew was sent into space on December 2, 1993 to correct the issue using additional mirrors designed to compensate for the original mistake. The cost of the mistake was $1.5 billion!5


Mars Climate Orbiter

Cost of Mistake: $328 Million


Mars – September 23, 1999 – Launched December 11, 1998, the Mars Climate Orbiter’s intended mission was to collect data on the Martian climate. The Mars Climate Orbiter, expecting navigation data in metric units, was sent data in English units6. The result was the $328-million7 Mars Climate Orbiter ventured too far into the Martian atmosphere, where it subsequently overheated and disintegrated (Figure 1)8. Noted in the NASA report, “‘The ‘root cause’ of the loss of the spacecraft was the failed translation of English units into metric units…9” .


Airbus Wiring Harness

Cost of Mistake: $6 Billion


Hamburg, Germany – October 4, 2006 – A recent mismatch occurred with the Airbus 380 due to “design software used at different Airbus factories (not being) …compatible10.” The electronics harness designers in Hamburg, Germany, had an older version of CATIA, a 3D CAD Software, than the assembly plant in Toulouse, France11. Although both had CAD software from the same company, data conversion between the mismatched software versions resulted in hundreds of miles of wiring harnesses that did not fit in the planes waiting in Toulouse. What was the result?! A 2-year halt in production, with over $6 billion dollars in losses and changes in upper management12.


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