3 Engineering Disasters That Were the Result of Miscommunication

Engineering Disasters

A 2010 study by the American Society for Engineering Education revealed a disturbing trend — graduating engineers have poor communication skills. In fact, more than half (52%) of recent graduates’ supervisors rated those graduates as being weak in both written and oral communication.

Effective communication is the cornerstone of collaboration and cooperation. This is important not just to promote harmony among engineering teams, but also for the success of engineering projects.

To illustrate just how important it is, here are three (well, actually, four) engineering disasters that were the direct result of poor communication somewhere along the line.

Mars Climate Orbiter disaster

Mars Climate Orbiter

In December 1998, NASA launched the Mars Climate Orbiter into space with the goal of studying the Martian climate. But it never made it, at least not in one piece. The spacecraft’s trajectory took it too close to the planet, and when it passed through the upper atmosphere, it disintegrated.

The problem was that two of the engineering teams working on the project used different units: one used SI units and the other used U.S. customary units. NASA attributed the disaster to “a failure to recognize and correct an error in a transfer of information between the Mars Climate Orbiter spacecraft team in Colorado and the mission navigation team in California.”

Edward Weiler, NASA Associate Administrator for Space Science, commented: “People sometimes make errors. The problem was not the error. It was the failure of NASA’s systems engineering, and the checks and balances in our processes, to detect the error. That’s why we lost the spacecraft.”

Challenger and Columbia Space Shuttle Losses

Challenger Space Shuttle

In 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into flight, killing its seven crew members. In 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated during re-entry after its 28th mission, also killing the seven people aboard.

The official investigations on both of these disasters identified poor communication as one of the major problems.

  • From the Rogers Commission Report on the Challenger disaster: “Failures in communication…resulted in a decision to launch 51-L based on incomplete and sometimes misleading information, a conflict between engineering data and management judgments, and a NASA management system that permitted internal flight safety problems to bypass key Shuttle managers.”
  • From the Columbia Accident Investigation Board on the Columbia disaster: “Organizational barriers…prevented effective communication of critical safety information.”

Hyatt Regency Disaster

Hyatt Hotel Walkway Collapse

In July 1981, two walkways in the lobby of the Kansas City Hyatt Regency Hotel collapsed. More than 100 people were killed and 200 injured. The cause was a structural design flaw that resulted in a decrease in the walkways’ load-bearing capacity.

But investigators concluded that the real reason those walkways collapsed was a miscommunication between the structural engineer and the steel fabricator. The drawings submitted by the structural engineer were preliminary, but the fabricator interpreted them as final. The fabricator then proposed a change that the engineer failed to review thoroughly before approving. The problem could have been prevented through better communication, particularly surrounding design changes.

These were all terrible tragedies, resulting in losses of life. And they all could have been prevented by better communication and closer collaboration between the various individuals and teams.

Fortunately, not all engineering failures are quite so catastrophic. But even smaller problems can still cost companies time, money, and reputation. And, like the disasters on this list, many of them can be prevented by improving the communication among team members.

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