What is Forensic Engineering?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Forensic engineering is a branch of the engineering field focused on the study of failures, accidents, and other incidents involving engineered products. The goal of forensic engineering is to find out what happened when something went wrong, and why it happened. Forensic engineers can work for consulting firms, local governments, and legal firms, and they do a wide variety of work in the field and in the lab.

When buildings collapse, auto accidents occur or a major electrical mishap takes place, it is the job of forensic engineers to research the causes and damages.
When buildings collapse, auto accidents occur or a major electrical mishap takes place, it is the job of forensic engineers to research the causes and damages.

Many people associate associate forensics with the investigation of human bodies. In fact, the word “forensics” is derived from the word forensis, referring to a public gathering place, and in the 1800s, the word came to be used in reference to a court of law. People in the forensics field examine information related to cases heard in court with the goal of learning more about the circumstances of the case so that the court can make a reasonable judgment.

Forensic engineering may include analysis in a lab.
Forensic engineering may include analysis in a lab.

When an engineered product fails, people usually want to know why. A forensic engineer can examine the product, perform a number of tests, research the conditions under which it was made, and so forth, to reconstruct the chain of events which led to the failure. On a low level, forensic engineering is used in product development and quality control to investigate internally when something goes wrong to make sure that it does not happen again.

When product liability is involved, forensic engineering is used to collect information which can support or demolish a case. People who are injured or who lost money as a result of the failure of an engineered product, ranging from a ball bearing to a bridge, may have recourse in a court of law if they can prove that the failure was the result of negligence on the part of manufacturer. Conversely, companies brought to court in such cases use forensic engineers to gather their own information in the hopes that they can overturn the case or work out an out of court settlement.

Types of things which forensic engineering can be applied to include: collapses of bridges, buildings, and other structures; failure of mechanical components; research into failures at public works facilities like dams and power plants; and investigation of any other type of failure of an engineered item. The work can include analysis in the lab to determine which materials will be used, along with on site inspection, interviews of people involved, and research into similar failures which may have happened in the past.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@miriam98 - I think another tragedy is power plant failures. A few years back Florida faced a major power outage that shut down power for over 700,000 customers.

If I recall correctly some nuclear reactors were involved and the power plant was fined something like $20 million.

I don’t think the forensic engineering investigation immediately discovered the cause of the outage, but it certainly wasn’t supposed to happen.

Nobody died, but still, these things should be prevented by circuit breakers and things like that, assuming that they were operating normally.


The last thing you want to fail is a bridge. I know; in the state where I live (Oklahoma) we had a bridge failure happen a few years ago.

I know some other states have had some well publicized and tragic collapses take place as well. In our situation our infrastructure had been old and decaying, and we were way overdue for new construction engineering for our bridges.

You shouldn’t have to wait for a calamity to happen to take these things seriously.

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