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Forensic engineering

Why do products fail? Inadequate materials, poor manufacturing or assembly methods, bad design – failure can arise at any stage, giving designers clues as to what failed, why, and how to avoid future failures. Using real case studies, this module examines the principles of good product design and assesses the significance of poor design on the development process. You will work with techniques for analysing product failure, including scientific and engineering tests and observation. You will investigate real catastrophic failures – the Challenger space shuttle, the Hindenburg and the Tay Bridge – and consider the role of design, manufacturing, materials and communications in these fatal disasters.


Start End Fee
- - -

No current presentation - see Future availability

This module is expected to start for the last time in November 2014.

What you will study

Forensic engineering, which draws on many different disciplines, is of relatively recent origin as a subject in its own right. Product design lies at the heart of successful manufacturing, whether of cars and aeroplanes at one level of complexity, or ladders and bottles at a simpler level. Failure gives the designer a clear indication of what to avoid in order to improve quality. Any innovations made by the designer should be protected, either by patent or by registered design. One of the module’s central aims is to provide guidance for good product design before development, so that wasted effort during development is eliminated. Our approach is through case studies, many based on the authors’ own cases, others on historical catastrophes and failures.

Block 1 Introduction to forensic engineering uses case studies, many including polymeric materials, to develop the skills you need for the analysis of product failure.

Block 2 Failure of products and processes provides a ‘toolbox’ of techniques: observations, scientific and engineering tests that can be used to establish evidence of the causes of a failure in a metallic product or process. A casebook presents real cases drawn from over forty years of one forensic metallurgist’s work. Some take you step by step through an investigation and ask you to consider allegations of serious or criminal negligence.

Block 3 Catastrophic failures examines large-scale failures that have caused loss of life, including the Tay Bridge disaster (1879), the Challenger space-shuttle disaster (1985) and the airship Hindenburg (1937). The studies consider the roles of stress concentration in the design of critical components, poor manufacturing and poor design, material failures, and poor communications.

Block 4 Intellectual property matters considers protection of new designs and inventive concepts. It concentrates on the arguments used for understanding particular patents, and the precedents that lawyers use for assessing construction, infringement and validity. Case studies include trials in which imitators were successfully sued by means of patents, and cases of new designs that were challenged unsuccessfully because the patents were weak or did not define the inventive concept widely enough to catch the alleged infringing product.


The module is for engineers, managers and scientists who work in manufacturing industry, especially those who are engaged in product design or quality assessment and control. 

There are no entry requirements, but we do assume that you have already done some study, up to HNC, HND or bachelors degree level, in a relevant subject area, or have equivalent experience from your employment. 

If you are already an OU student we recommend that your previous study should include our undergraduate OU level 1 module Engineering the future (T174) (or the discontinued T173) and/or our level 3 module Structural integrity: designing against failure (T357)

Your spoken and written English must be of an adequate standard for postgraduate study. If English is not your first language, we recommend that you will need a minimum overall score of 6 and minimum score of 5.5 in each of the four components: reading, writing, speaking and listening under the International English Language Testing System (IELTS). Please see the IELTS website for details.

If you have any doubt about the suitability of the module, please contact our Student Registration & Enquiry Service.


T839 is an optional module in our:

Some postgraduate qualifications allow study to be chosen from other subject areas. These qualifications allow most postgraduate modules to count towards them. We advise you to refer to the relevant qualification descriptions for information on the circumstances in which this module can count towards these qualifications because from time to time the structure and requirements may change.


As a student of The Open University, you should be aware of the content of the Module Regulations and the Student Regulations which are available on our Essential documents website.

If you have a disability

Some of the study materials are presented on DVD. Written transcripts are available for the audio-visual material.

You will need to spend considerable amounts of time using a personal computer and the internet. 

If you have particular study requirements please tell us as soon as possible, as some of our support services may take several weeks to arrange. Find out more about our services for disabled students.

Study materials

What's included

Module books, other printed materials, DVD, software.

You will need

A DVD player.

Computing requirements

You will need a computer with internet access to study this module as it includes online activities, which you can access using a web browser.

  • If you have purchased a new desktop or laptop computer since 2008 you should have no problems completing the online activities.
  • If you’ve got a netbook, tablet or other mobile device check our Technical requirements section.
  • If you use an Apple Mac you will need OS X 10.7 or later.

You can also visit the Technical requirements section for further computing information (including details of the support we provide).

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You will have a tutor who will be responsible for monitoring your progress on the module, marking and commenting on your written work and whom you can contact for advice and guidance. You can also communicate with fellow students via an online forum, which is moderated by a tutor.

Contact our Student Registration & Enquiry Service if you want to know more about study with The Open University before you register.


The assessment details can be found in the facts box above.

You will be expected to submit your tutor-marked assignments (TMAs) online through the eTMA system unless there are some difficulties which prevent you from doing so. In these circumstances, you must negotiate with your tutor to get their agreement to submit your assignment on paper.

Professional recognition

The Open University is registered with The Institute of Quality Assurance (IQA), Institute of Materials (IOM) and The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), for professional recognition.

Students also studied

Students who studied this course also studied at some time:

Future availability

The details given here are for the module that starts in November 2014 when it will be available for the last time. A replacement module is not planned.

How to register

We regret that we are currently unable to accept registrations for this course. Where the course is to be presented again in the future, relevant registration information will be displayed on this page as soon as it becomes available.

Distance learning

The Open University is the world's leading provider of flexible, high quality distance learning. Unlike other universities we are not campus based. You will study in a flexible way that works for you whether you're at home, at work or on the move. As an OU student you'll be supported throughout your studies - your tutor or study adviser will guide and advise you, offer detailed feedback on your assignments, and help with any study issues. Tuition might be in face-to-face groups, via online tutorials, or by phone.

For more information about distance learning at the OU read Study explained.

Course facts
About this course:
Course code T839
Credits 30
OU Level Postgraduate
SCQF level 11
FHEQ level 7
Course work includes:
3 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
No residential school

Student Reviews

“I am now halfway through 2 other PG modules and I must say, I miss T839 a lot! This course...”
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“An excellent course which despite some of the materials being dated is still very relevant in most respects. Although I...”
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