Comment |

The Perils of O-Ring Thinking


By Warren Brand

When it comes to failure, there are causes, and then there are causes.

Take the catastrophic Space Shuttle Challenger explosion—NASA’s deadliest accident ever. What caused the 1986 disaster that claimed seven brilliant lives?

Two reasons:

1.         The direct cause—the smoking gun—was the failure of a Viton 0-ring on the right-side solid rocket booster.

2.         But the root cause—the cause behind the cause—was a systematic failure of NASA’s decision-making process.

The same types of decision-making failures that still pervade our industry today.

Now, like most of the materials in our industry, Viton is a polymer—specifically, a widely used fluoroelastomer developed by DuPont.

iStock / dmbaker

In a failure analysis, which cause are you seeking? The smoking gun, or the root cause?

So why did it fail on Jan. 28, 1986? Simple (in hindsight): It was too cold for the launch.

Failure Analysis

The Challenger failure analysis plays out much like a coating failure analysis (although certainly with graver consequences).

Consider these factors examined by the Rogers Commission, which investigated the disaster.

Environmentals: The temperature on launch day was 36°F, or 15 degrees cooler than any other launch.

Substrate surface temperature: The joint surface was about 28°F in the shade; about 50°F on the other side.

Material analysis:  “A compressed O-ring at 75°F is five times more responsive in returning to its uncompressed shape than a cold O-ring at 30°F,” the commission reported.

Contributing cause: “The commission concluded that there was a serious flaw in the decision-making process leading up to the launch of flight 51-L.”

There. That’s the line that, quite literally, keeps me up at night.

Like almost every coating failure analysis I’ve ever encountered, this failure was preventable.

Now, dysfunctional decision making wears several faces.

The Definition of Insanity…

… as we know, is to do the same thing over and over again and expect a different outcome. And yet, many companies still do it.

Icicles on Challenger's launch pad

In hindsight, it was too cold for the Challenger's Viton O-rings to return to their uncompressed state Jan. 28, 1986, causing failure. But the greater failure was higher up NASA's decision chain.

I just held a webinar for the local facility of a $50 billion chemical company, where the engineer was fuming about ongoing problems with corrosion, paint and coatings. Overruns and premature failures abounded. 

Why? Well, the engineer grumbled, there was only one approved coating applicator, the specifications were 12 years old, and they were probably provided by “the paint salesman who brought the most doughnuts.”

But the root cause of the problems had nothing to do with the specifications or the applicator. Those were just the “O-rings.”

Decisions, Decisions

The root cause was the plant’s decision-making process. What management needed, I said, was a third-party condition survey to determine what needed to be addressed, and when.

It also needed an independent optimal coating identification process. And a specification, RFQ, and QA/QC protocols. Multiple bidders. And inspection services during application. In other words, a whole-process solution.

When I estimated a fee for these additional steps, the engineer said it was “nothing” compared to the costs of their botched coatings.

So, we signed him up and the plant lived corrosion-free ever after, right?

Well, no. In the end, the engineer asked if we could simply “do something” to make the contractor do a better job and said the coating specs were “probably fine.”

I had a similar meeting with one of the world’s largest entertainment companies. I flew out to California for several long meetings where everyone agreed that our process would save them a lot of money and increase the durability of their painting processes.

Wikimedia Commons / Andrew Massyn

Contrary to popular belief, ostriches do not hide their heads in the sand. Nor should project managers, coating consultants or engineers.

Yet no one was willing, or had the authority, to change the decision-making process.

So it didn’t change.

Ego and Arrogance

Then there was the large Midwestern zoo that was beginning a $25 million rehabilitation, including rebuilding its aquarium.

The zoo hired an internationally known architectural firm to specify the coatings for the aquarium.  We were asked, almost as an afterthought, to conduct a peer review of the specifications.

Our conclusion: The specifications were seriously flawed for a variety of reasons. When we presented our findings, the architect was furious. I was reporting data, and he was attacking me personally. There was no interest in a discussion—just in saving face.

“You just don’t understand!” the architect yelled. “This isn’t a coating project!”

Actually, the problem was that he didn’t understand that it was.

In the end, the zoo deferred to our judgment. The other firm still wrote the specifications, but we were hired to review them and are slated to provide inspection services during application.

The Plague of Politics

I just spoke with the engineer of a wastewater treatment plant where a salt holding facility was being painted with a tri-coat system. An outstanding coating company and suitable coating system had been specified.

Challenger explosion

The Challenger disaster claimed seven lives. Investigators "concluded that there was a serious flaw in the decision-making process leading up to the launch of flight 51-L."

We had been called to see if we could get an inspector to settle a dispute about the blast.

The coating maker had a highly competent rep on site who was concerned that his material was not being installed properly. There was a contractor who had hired a blasting contractor and was going to try to paint himself. Then there was a local, well-known engineering firm that had written the specification.  

We arranged for the inspector, but then the order was cancelled; the engineering firm would handle the dispute.

When I asked the engineer if SCAT testing was included in the specification, he said no, and that no steps were being taken to check or treat the surface for soluble salts.

If this isn’t a premature and catastrophic coating failure waiting to happen, I don’t know what is.

And, when the coating fails, everyone’s going to blame it on the application—the “O-rings.”

Competition over Collaboration

Finally, there's this. Years ago, when I owned my own coating company, we were asked to bid on coating more than 120,000 square feet of previously painted concrete.

The plan was to partner with a much larger coating firm.  The other owner and I looked at the specifications and logistics, which were both fine.

But we also paid close attention to the adversarial environment the GC had created in the process.  The liquidated damages per day approached $20,000.

We decided not to bid. And in the end, the project experienced a massive coating failure during operation.

The O-ring in that case was application issues in the guise of an amine blush.

But the real failure was rooted in the adversarial environment of that early pre-bid meeting.

Now What?

So what’s the answer to this shortsighted, and potentially catastrophic, type of thinking?

Our industry is a family of highly competent, well-intended individuals whose goal is to provide service to our clients.

But is that enough?.

As coating professionals, we must go beyond the O-ring focus on products and services and educate clients to the critical importance of sound decision-making practices.

Structural integrity, and sometimes lives, depends on it.


Warren Brand

Warren Brand’s coatings career has ranged from entry-level field painting to the presidency of two successful companies. Over nearly three decades, he has project-managed thousands of coating installations and developed specs for thousands of paint and coating applications. NACE Level 3 and SSPC PCS certified, Brand, an MBA and martial-arts instructor, now heads Chicago Corrosion Group, a leading coatings consultancy. Contact Warren.



Tagged categories: Coating Materials; Consultants; NACE; Protective Coating Specialist (PCS); Protective coatings; Specification writing; SSPC; Chicago Coatings Group; Coating failure; Failure analysis; Inspection; Program/Project Management; Project Management

Comment from Jeffrey Stewart, (11/18/2013, 1:13 PM)

GREAT Article and a needed blast of honesty. There is a lot of "been there, seen that, and lived that" in this article. If there is one other area that I would have liked to see mentioned is, "I know this is wrong, but we don't have time to do it right" which is never remembered when the finger pointing starts after the failure.

Comment Join the Conversation:

Sign in to our community to add your comments.

Tarps manufacturing, Inc.


Sauereisen, Inc.

Axxiom Manufacturing

HoldTight Solutions Inc.

Western Technology Inc.

Seal for Life/STOPAQ

Abrasives Inc.


Technology Publishing Co., 1501 Reedsdale Street, Suite 2008, Pittsburgh, PA 15233

TEL 1-412-431-8300  • FAX  1-412-431-5428  •  EMAIL

The Technology Publishing Network

PaintSquare the Journal of Protective Coatings & Linings Paint BidTracker

EXPLORE:      JPCL   |   PaintSquare News   |   Interact   |   Buying Guides   |   Webinars   |   Resources   |   Classifieds
REGISTER AND SUBSCRIBE:      Free PaintSquare Registration   |   Subscribe to JPCL   |   Subscribe to PaintSquare News
MORE:      About   |   Privacy Policy   |   Terms & Conditions   |   Support   |   Site Map   |   Search   |   Contact Us