Forensic engineers are much like scientific detectives. They are called on to conduct investigations and determine the causes of accidents, fires, equipment failures, safety system malfunctions, and structural collapses. Milton F. Lunch, the former General Council for the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) sums it up very well:
Methods used in forensic engineering investigations, sometimes referred to as “root cause failure analysis,” can include reverse engineering, testing of exemplar components, review of documentary evidence, and examination of alleged failed components. Investigations are conducted in view of engineering principles, standard design practices, industry standards, and regulatory requirements.
In the course of a forensic investigation, it’s sometimes impossible to dissect components and devices without destroying any evidence that might be contained within. If destructive examination is unacceptable or impossible, non destructive techniques can be used effectively. Examples of non-destructive examination (NDE) techniques can include the use of a hand-held multimeter to check for electrical continuity or the use of x-ray equipment to reveal telltale signs of failure.
Ideally, a forensic engineer should be the one to document, collect, and preserve evidence from the scene of the disputed incident. The outcome of a forensic investigation can sometimes hinge on minute strands of wire or tiny fragments of a component. These small pieces of evidence can be easily overlooked, lost, or damaged by others before the forensic engineer even gets involved.