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Engineering Failure Analysis 14 (2007) 158–163

Failure analysis of a passenger car coil spring

S.K. Das , N.K. Mukhopadhyay b, B. Ravi Kumar a, D.K. Bhattacharya c

National Metallurgical Laboratory, Materials Characterisation Division, Jamshedpur 831007, India
Department of Metallurgical Engineering, Benaras Hindu University, Varanasi, India
Central Glass and Ceramic Research Institute, Kolkata, India

Received 1 September 2005; accepted 5 November 2005

Available online 28 February 2006


Investigation on the premature failure of suspension coil spring of a passenger car, which failed within few months after
being put into service, has been carried out. Besides visual examination, other experimental techniques used for the inves-
tigation were (a) microstructural analysis and fractography by scanning electron microscopy (SEM), (b) inclusion rating by
optical microscopy, (c) hardness testing, (d) residual stress measurement by X-Ray diffraction (XRD) and (e) instrumental
chemical analysis. Inherent material defect in association with deficient processing led to the failure of the spring.
 2006 Published by Elsevier Ltd.

Keywords: Coil spring; Inclusion; Failure; Shot peening; Residual stress

1. Introduction

Springs are used in mechanical equipment with moving parts, to absorb loads, which may be continuously,
or abrupt varying. The absorption of the loads takes place in the form of elastic energy. Coil springs are man-
ufactured from rods which are coiled in the form of a helix. The design parameters of a coil spring are the rod
diameter, spring diameter and the number of coil turns per unit length. Normally, springs fail due to high cycle
fatigue in which the applied stress remains below the yield strength level and the loading cycle is more than 105
cycles/sec. In springs made from steels, the chemical composition of the steel and the heat treatment given to it
are such that the inherent damping capacity of the steel is high. It is rare that a spring fails in service due to
faulty design. The causes of failures are mainly related to deficient microstructure and/or presence of stress
concentration raisers. A common microstructure in steel springs is tempered martensite with certain specified
hardness range which is tailored during manufacturing practice. Among the stress raisers on the surface;
roughness of the surface and inclusions are two important examples. The adverse effect of inclusions on fatigue
behaviour is well known. Their effect is more pronounced at high stress amplitudes [1]. Residual stress on the
surface is another well known factor for influencing fatigue behaviour. Tensile stress at the surface promotes

Corresponding author. Tel.: +91 657 2271709x2097; fax: +91 657 2270527.
E-mail addresses:, (S.K. Das).

1350-6307/$ - see front matter  2006 Published by Elsevier Ltd.

S.K. Das et al. / Engineering Failure Analysis 14 (2007) 158–163 159

fatigue failure, and compressive stress improves the fatigue behaviour. The effect of adverse residual stresses
on the surface can be reduced either by proper stress relief treatment [2] or by giving a shot peening operation,
which imparts compressive stress on the surface.
Although shot peening is extensively employed in the industry, problems are still encountered and optimi-
sation of the process is often required [3]. In this paper, the failure of a suspension coil spring of passenger car
which failed only after a few 100 km of running is discussed. Though discussions on the causes of failure of
springs are available in the literature, the present case deserves attention since it was not apparently caused by
fatigue – the usual mode of failure for a spring.
The present failure analysis was carried out on the failed spring rod shown in Fig. 1. The diameter of the
spring was 80 mm and that of the spring rod 10 mm. The steel grade for the spring was AISI/SAE9260. Fig. 1
shows two smaller pieces (cut from the bigger ones) and each having the fracture surfaces at one of the ends.

2. Experimental

The chemical composition of the material was analysed by standard atomic absorption spectroscopy
method. Specimens were prepared for optical microscopy and SEM observation as well as for hardness mea-
surement using standard metallographic sample preparation techniques. Nital (2%) was used as an etchant to
reveal the microstructure. Scanning electron microscope with an energy dispersive X-ray microanalysis (EDS)
attachment was used for microstructural analysis and fractography. Specimens without metallographic etch-
ing were used to determine the inclusion rating by optical microscopy, as per ASTM standard. Hardness mea-
surements were made in Vickers scale.
X-ray diffraction (XRD) was used for residual stress measurement by using Sin2w. The principle of the tech-
nique is well established and is not discussed here in detail. A portable equipment was used (Model AST2001
by American Stress Technology, USA) for the purpose. The measurements were made on curved surface as
well as across the cross-section of the spring rod at four different circumferential positions (at 12, 3, and 9
o’clock positions) and at various axial positions at every 1 cm distance from the fracture face. On the curved
surface, the XRD technique was used at the 12, 3 and 9 o’clock positions at three axial locations of the spring
rod (at 1, 5 and 10 cm from one of the fracture surfaces).

3. Results and discussion

The chemical composition (in wt%) of the spring matches nearly to the specified grade of spring steel (AISI/
SAE9260) and as follows: C-0.55; Si-2.2; Mn-1.1; S-0.03; P-0.035 and balance Fe. The amount of Si and Mn is
slightly higher than the upper specified limits for these elements (2.1% and 1.0%, respectively). Presence of high

Fig. 1. Photograph of failed coil spring having fracture surfaces at either ends. The smaller two fractured pieces were taken from another
failed region of the spring.
160 S.K. Das et al. / Engineering Failure Analysis 14 (2007) 158–163

silicon in steel helps in stabilising the microstructure during tempering operation. This is due to irreversible
segregation of silicon at phase and feature boundaries [4]. Therefore, in the present case higher silicon means
stability of microstructure and thus a good resistance against fatigue damage. On the other hand, excessive
amount of silicon suggests the possibility of formation of more silicon bearing inclusions like silicates in
the steels. The Mn in steel enters into the sulphide inclusions and increases its plasticity. Thereby, it reduces
adverse effect of sulphide inclusions on mechanical properties including fatigue.
Fig. 2 shows the SEM microstructure taken from the cross section at a location near one of the fracture
surface of the spring. It shows smaller grain tempered martensite. As per ASTM standard the grain size is
of No. 8 which is towards the lower end of the grain size scale [5]. Fine grain microstructure is considered good
for resistance against fatigue damage [6]. The microstructure was uniform from edge to centre. Fig. 3 is an
optical micrograph showing oxide inclusions in a polished but unetched surface. The presence of ‘Si’ in the
inclusions was detected by EDS. From this information and the shape of the inclusions as compared with
those available in ASTM standard, it was concluded that the inclusions were of oxide types. The inclusion
rating, on the average, was estimated to be 3 (H&D) type [7]. The amount of the inclusions increased gradually
from the centre of the spring rods to towards their edge. This was as expected since exogenous non-metallic
inclusions generally segregate at the central region during processing. The hardness values (VHN at 30 kg)
across the cross section of the steel rod was found 485 ± 5 HV. From this value, the tensile stress of the steel
in MPa was derived to be 1550 MPa from the equation [8]:
rTS ðin MPaÞ ¼ 3:2 VHN or HV ½VHN or HV ¼ Vickers hardness number
The tensile strength was determined empirically, since it was not possible to prepare standard tensile test
specimen from the failed spring steel received, to conduct tensile test. The value of the tensile strength
was necessary for correlating the amount of residual stress in terms of the tensile strength that was imparted
by the shot peening process. Surface condition of the spring was also observed. Fig. 4 is the SEM micro-
graph of the surface along spring profile showing circumferential fissures and general unevenness. The depth
of the fissures in many cases was measured of the order of 0.5 mm. This indicates that the surface was
poorly prepared prior to shot peening process. The abnormally deep fissures could act as potential locations
for failures. Fractography studies carried on one of the two fracture surfaces is shown in Fig. 5. The frac-
ture surface with an elliptical projection was slanted with respect to the axis of the spring rod. The slanting
(45) nature with elongated dimples fracture indicates the mode of failure was ductile (shear). At higher
magnifications, the dimples were revealed (Fig. 6). In some of the dimples, the inclusions could be observed.
It is important to note that at no region of the fracture surface, beach marks or serration or striations which
are typical of fatigue failure signature that could be expected in a component like spring, was detected. It is
true that during fatigue crack growth, depending on the stress intensity factors operating ahead of a crack,
the fracture surfaces can have features other than serration, but the occurrence of dimples in a high cycle
fatigue where the load is well below the yield point, is not common. In an overload situation in the tertiary

Fig. 2. SEM micrograph of failed spring material showing tempered martensite microstructure.
S.K. Das et al. / Engineering Failure Analysis 14 (2007) 158–163 161

Fig. 3. Optical micrograph on a longitudinal cross section near a fracture surface which is polished but unetched showing the oxide
inclusions at 100·.

Fig. 4. SEM micrograph of the curved surface of spring rod showing fissures and unevenness of surface.

Fig. 5. SEM fractograph of the failed spring at lower magnification showing the entire fracture surface.

region of fatigue crack growth, the presence of dimples is however possible. Residual stress measurements
by XRD showed compressive stress ranging between 430–600 MPa .These values are less than half of the
calculated empirical yield strength and the range of variation is large enough to suspect that the shot peen-
ing process had uneven effect on the spring. The knowledge of the variation of residual stress across the
162 S.K. Das et al. / Engineering Failure Analysis 14 (2007) 158–163

Fig. 6. SEM fractograph of the failed spring showing the dimples and oxide inclusions.

cross-section particularly the variation (gradient) at the surface region is necessary since the tendency to fail-
ure due to a cyclic loading of a component like spring is related to the depth of surface layer in which com-
pressive stress is present. Shallower the depth, greater will be the tendency to failure. XRD technique is
limited only measurement depths of few microns. To estimate the depth of the compressive stress layer,
residual stress measurements were made across few transversally cut sections. The rod was transversally
cut by a very slow speed diamond cut off wheel. About 200 lm thick layer was then electrochemically re-
moved (keeping the full elliptical cross section of the rod as the anode) so that the spurious residual stress
introduced during cutting would not be present. An important observation was made that similar trends in
the residual stress values were found across cross sections at all the locations where such measurements were
made giving justification. From a compressive state of stress at the surface, there is a change towards a ten-
sile state of stress at the shallow sub-surface region. The onset of tensile residual stress region falls very near
to the base of the fissures present, indicating the possibility of crack initiation at the base of the fissures.
This moreover highlight, the deficiency of shot peening operation that had been imparted on to the spring
surface. For the same circumferential location such as at 12 O’clock and to some extent at 9 O’clock posi-
tions, the residual stresses were not uniform and vary from location to location substantially.
The normal mode of failure of a spring is usually fatigue because the type of loading that springs are
subjected to in service is cyclic in nature. The sprigs are designed to withstand high cycle fatigue damage
for which the maximum load is always below the yield strength and the number of cycles of loading is
more than 106–107. But, in the present case, the failure took place only after a few 100 km of running.
Failure due to typical high cycle fatigue was therefore not a possibility. It was also found that the physical
dimensions of the spring and the grade of steel used had been as per proven design. The steel was medium
carbon high silicon steel, which is expected to have a very stable tempered martensite microstructure due to
irreversible segregation of silicon at the boundaries of dislocations and martensite lath This grade of steel is
therefore expected to be highly resistant against high cycle fatigue damage. The possibility of overloading
beyond yield stress was also ruled out after analysing the record of the movement of the automobile. The
presence of dimples on the fracture surface was however indicative of failure in the presence of inclusions.
The presence of a large number of inclusions throughout the cross section of the spring rod has been
found. The inclusion rating (as per ASTM) D-3 of the heavy type was indeed high. As per the information
available with the manufacturer of the passenger car, the inclusion rating should not have exceeded a value
of D-2.

4. Conclusions

The spring was failed prematurely due to the inadequate shot peening process used to impart residual com-
pressive stresses on the surface. The presence of excessive oxide inclusions in the steel might have also aggra-
vated the case.
S.K. Das et al. / Engineering Failure Analysis 14 (2007) 158–163 163


The authors are thankful to Director, NML, for his kind permission to publish this paper.


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