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MTBF

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www.mtbf-calculation.com


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1. Introduction to MTBF

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This is the MTBF knowledge page. The goal is to provide basic knowledge in all aspects of MTBF one might encounter in business context, and to clarify common misconceptions. Target audience is everyone who is involved in business and wants (or is forced to) learn about MTBF, be it a CEO, an electronic engineer, or any function in-between.
Complementary to this knowledge page is the MTBF calculation page, where I offer MTBF calculation services.

MTBF means "mean time between failure". Although it sounds pretty easy and intuitive, the underlying concept is difficult to grasp, and moreover, the whole thing has far-reaching consequences almost nobody is aware of. Most engineers, even with technical background, have in best case a very simplified understanding of MTBF, if they have a clue at all. 

The point is that MTBF is not just a model for certain aspects of reality, it is way more.
Finally it boils down to this:

The more the MTBF model can be applied to a company, the better the company is. 

MTBF = MTTF + MTTRCompanies with advanced and mature quality management would encounter the MTBF model as a real thing, whereas less mature companies would emphasize that it is just an idealized model with limited applicability.
The math and statistics supporting the MTBF model can be understood as a perfect means for perfect companies to master failures and errors in every phase of the product life cycle. Not at all does "Perfect" mean zero failures. "Perfect" rather describes a sophisticated awareness of failures, their causes and their consequences. Perfect companies make failures, of course, but the difference is this: Instead of unexpectedly getting "hit" by failures and just blaming "circumstances" as the cause, they have failures under control.

In essence, perfect companies could eliminate every failure if they wanted, and therefore they would continually operate at maximum economic viability because they would always find the best compromise between budget and tolerable failures. For perfect companies, the (remaining) rate of tolerable failures is not a random outcome, but rather a result of a business decision based on advanced quality management.


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2. Difference between MTBF and MTTF

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MTBF and MTTF can be distinguished in two different
ways. mtbf mttf difference

As shown in the picture, MTBF is just MTTF + repair time (MTTR: mean time to repair). Instead of repair, it could also be replacement, replenishment etc. Since this doesn't make  any difference, we just call it downtime. The key is that MTBF includes downtime, but MTTF does not.
For most items the MTTR is quite small compared to MTTF, therefore MTTF ~ MTBF.  However, the bigger and more comprehensive the item is, the more different MTBF and MTTF get. For example, production lines and aircrafts consist of many piece parts, leading to rather low MTBF and rather high downtime, therefore MTBF and MTTF may differ substantially.

Because MTBF ~ MTTF in most cases, industries have adopted either one or the other term for the same meaning. While functional safety engineers tend to MTTF, logistics and maintenance personnel prefer MTBF.

The second way to distinguish MTTF from MTBF is not very common, but nonetheless important. It can be mathematically shown that for redundant  / fault tolerant systems, the mean time to first failure (then called MTTF) is different from the mean time between failures (MTBF) in steady state. The distinction between MTTF and MTBF becomes really important here, in particular when the useful product life can be associated with either the "setting time" (characterized by MTTF), or the steady state (characterized by MTBF).

From now on we will use only the term MTBF.


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3. MTBF simple and concise

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Let's begin with a simple example. It will soon turn out that it is actually difficult, and, even worse, it will raise a couple of questions that need comprehensive answers.
What is the best estimate for the MTBF of the population? MTBF from field data, optimistic
Most engineers would do the kind of math that is shown in the picture: 2,4 million operating hours / 2 failures = 1,2 million hours. If you are a CEO or any other decision maker, you are allowed to stop reading at this point as long as you take the warning to your heart: This math is definitely wrong, and the bad thing is that it produces optimistic MTBF figures! The correct figure is substantially smaller than 1,2 million hours!
For the statisticians among you readers: The problem is not statistical confidence or interval estimation.


OK, there are a couple of questions begging for answers. The most difficult question comes last.
  1. The real MTBF figure in the above example is circa 900.000 hours, which is about 100 years. This obviously cannot be what we consider a time, because no technical product would last 100 years without a failure.
    Thus, MTBF is not a duration or a calendar time, but a parameter characterizing the statistical failure behavior of the population of units.
    • Why do we need this?

  2. The example has no information about the following:
    • how long have the units already been in operation?
    • what's the intended useful lifetime of the product?

      10 to 20 years would be typical product lifetimes. On the other hand, MTBF figures principally have no hard upper limit. One to 10 million hours is pretty normal, and even a billion hours or more is encountered quite often. Therefore, just concluding from the figures, it seems clear that MTBF and Lifetime must be different things.

    • Is there any connection at all between MTBF and lifetime?

  3. The example also has no information about this:
    • when did the two failures occur? 

      For example, there is nothing wrong with the assumption that both failures could have occurred within the first 4 hours, with no additional failure during the last 20 hours. Or the first failure could have occurred in the first minute, and the second failure in the last minute. The fact that no such information is given implies that failures may occur arbitrarily at any time point.
    • What's the nature of the failures are we talking about?

  4. As already mentioned, the calculation as shown above produces optimistic results, and this is not a matter of statistical confidence. Why is this, and
    • why is it wrong to calculate MTBF just with simple math (rule of three)?
MTBF from field dataIt is difficult to answer any of these 4 questions thoroughly without using answers from the other topics, so please be patient and try to read through until the end of this page.

4. MTBF misconceptions

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4.1 What does MTBF really mean and what's the purpose

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MTBF is a simple and intuitive measure for the frequency of failures of a given number of units operated at given ambient conditions. The operator can easily estimate from the MTBF figure cost of labor and spares associated with failures expected in the future. Thus, MTBF can serve as an input parameter for operational
planning.

more piece parts --> less MTBFSystems with many potential failure modes will fail more often than systems with less failure modes, all other conditions being equal. Complex systems naturally have many piece parts, and therefore more potential failure modes than simple systems with less piece parts. For example, a production line will fail more often than a hand drill.
We can summarize the above in a more general way as follows:
All remaining circumstances being equal: The more piece parts needed for operation, the more potential failure modes will be induced. Therefore, more failures will actually happen, finally resulting in lower MTBF. The same put much simpler:

More piece parts --> lower MTBF
Less piece parts --> higher MTBF

It is not too exaggerated if we consider MTBF as a measure of complexity, which comes in disguise of a reliability metric.

All following statements are equal:
As mentioned before, the true MTBF figure of our example, namely circa 900.000 h (~100 years), cannot be considered a duration or a calendar time, because this is much longer than any technical unit can be in operation without failure. Therefore it is obvious that MTBF can not be applied to a certain unit in a reasonable way.
However, if applied to a population of units, it suddenly makes sense because a population of units would provide a substantial amount of operating time during a relatively short calendar time. In our example, 100.000 units provide altogether 2,4 million operating hours in a single day!
Summarizing the above:

MTBF is a simple and intuitive reliability measure for a population of units.

This leads us to the next topic.



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4.2  MTBF versus Lifetime

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Here is a key statement (will be explained later):
This statement remains true if we replace "design life" with "life time", "useful product life time", or any other kind of calendar time. This is just a matter of interpretation and context.
The so-called bathtub curve  model, commonly used in quality management, explains the difference between MTBF and life time quite well.
The bathtub curve however shows the failure rate lambda instead of MTBF. This is not just for the purpose of looking like a bathtub, but because the calculation is easier with failure rates than with MTBF.  (The failure rate is simply the reciprocal of MTBF)
The bathtub curve shows the failure rate over time for a population of units. It shows 3 clearly distinguishable phases, which makes it an idealized model. In real life, not every phase would manifest in every case, and phases would sometimes overlap.

Phase 1:
At the beginning of the product life, when units are put into operation, the failure rate may be higher than originally expected. Suppliers typically react by fixing (certain or selected) causes of failure, or by improving the product quality in general. As a result, the failure rate becomes smaller over time.
The characteristic of this phase is the decreasing failure rate (= increasing MTBF).

The failures in this phase are called early failures, and the phase is often called early failure phase or infant mortality phase.
bath tub curve: infant mortality, early failures
At some point in time the supplier will decide that the product quality is sufficiently good, and will therefore stop the quality improvement process. The failure rate then will not decrease any more, instead it will turn into a kind of steady state (constant failure rate over time), which is the characteristic of this phase.
Constant failure rate over time has strong implications, which are explained
later in detail. 
bath tub curve: constant failure rate
Finally, when the useful product life is over, the product may encounter an increasing failure rate because of aging, wear-out, neglect of maintenance, etc.
The characteristic of this phase is the increasing failure rate (= decreasing MTBF).
bath tub curve: wear-out failures
The bathtub curve visualizes the difference between MTBF and lifetime quite clearly. The next two pictures may emphasize this a bit:bath tub curve: constant failure rate Lifetime is measured on the horizontal X-axis, representing a duration or a calendar time, whereas MTBF (or 1/MTBF) is measured on the vertical y-Axis, representing a parameter value of the population of units.
The bathtub curve suggests that 1/MTBF is a kind of probability of failure of a product during its whole lifetime. 

The key statement from the beginning of this paragraph puts it precisely:
Careful readers may have noticed that MTBF and lifetime may be indeed different, but there may still be some kind of (probablybathtub curve: life time hidden) relationship between the two. Our example has been designed with the purpose of avoiding any relationship. Remember: 100.000 units have been operated for 24 hours with 2 failures. There is no mention of Lifetime at all.

Now let's introduce lifetime into our example. Let 20 units be 10 years 24/7 in operation, with altogether 2 failures. This is 200 cumulative operating years, with 2 failures, and again we obtain circa 100 years MTBF by doing simple math (which is, as clearly emphasized before, wrong. The correct figure is 75 years. More on this later).
Just by modifying our example, the probability nature of MTBF becomes more obvious: 200 units have been operated for a lifetime, and 2 have failed. --> The probability of failure of a unit during its lifetime seems to be 2/200 = 1%.

MTBF versus LifetimeLet's modify our example again by substantially increasing the complexity: Trucks and cars for example are quite likely to fail at least once in their lifetime. Aircrafts typically fail once every month (which has no worse impact due to their redundant design), and production lines even tend to fail every hour. The MTBF for these items is either comparable to their lifetime (cars, trucks), or may be even lower (aircrafts, production lines).
In contrast to what we stated above, namely that MTBF cannot be applied to single units in a useful way, it seems that if only the items are sufficiently complex, it definitely can, because then the probability of failure during lifetime is so high that the majority of the items would encounter at least one failure. 
Therefore, if MTBF is sufficiently low compared to lifetime, which is true for sufficiently complex units, MTBF can be applied to single units.


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4.3 Random failures versus systematic failures

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constant failura rate = random failuresThe foundation of the MTBF model is the distinction between random failures and systematic failures. Random failures are unpredictable, and therefore occur unexpectedly. In contrast, systematic failures are predictable, and can therefore at least theoretically be avoided, if the operator could and if budget would allow. The MTBF model requires that systematic failures either don't exist, or they can be considered negligible or disregarded for other (valid) reasons. "Constant failure rate" is the mathematical expression for the absence of systematic failures, where failures occur only randomly. 

Chance means that things evolve in a way we cannot predict. More precisely: The Inability to predict the point of time of a failure event. The reason for this inability is not just missing knowledge or experience, but rather the fact that the necessary knowledge doesn't even exist, because the laws of nature literally don't allow its existence. It is not a technological issue, nor is it a lack of technological progress that prevents us from obtaining this knowledge. Even worse, we already do know since decades of the existence of events, for which nature doesn't offer the kind of information we would need for prediction. In science, these types of events are called random events, which emphasizes that objective randomness in fact exists. We see real randomness for example in:
Real randomness has a sound foundation in theoretical physics. The so-called bell inequality is the proof that real (or objective) randomness exists, and, moreover, randomness is nothing less than "the driving force" of nature.

Now let's go back to our MTBF context. We already know that objectively random events, and therefore unpredictable failure events exist. But what are random technical failures exactly? Let's answer this first from the natural science viewpoint. The functioning of electronic equipment comes down to the behavior and effects of electrons in atoms and crystals. We know that it is difficult, if not impossible, to explain the behavior and the effects on that microcosmic scale with the same natural laws we apply on larger scales. Therefore, quantum mechanics was "invented", which, despite all its peculiarities, perfectly explains the world on microcosmic scale. We know from quantum mechanics, that on microscopic scale a lot of things are going on just for no reason, continually producing random events. Some events kind of evolve or propagate in such a way that their effects become noticeable on larger scales, where they manifest as random, macroscopic events.
The question is: Is this what the MTBF model and the bathtub curve mean by random failures? No, because these events (microscopic random events noticeably manifesting on macroscopic scale) are so rare that they're quantitatively irrelevant. Nevertheless is it important to understand that randomnes is not just an excuse for (human) technical inability, but a real and objective thing that constitutes nature. 
random vs systematic failures
Now let's add economical "ingredients". Instead of electronic equipment exposed to natural laws, let's now focus on a company that develops and produces electronic equipment. By acknowledging that this company acts as a market participant in competition with other companies, it becomes clear that not only natural laws, but also time, knowledge and budget are important "constituents" that determine the behavior of the finished product (e.g. a PCB). But how is this connected with randomness?

Let the company design and manufacture a product. The product is introduced into the market, but the product
somehow encounters more failures than expected. The defect units are sent back to the company where the quality management (QM) department scrutinizes them for the causes of failure. Let's assume that the QM finds the cause for 70% of all defects. The company's corrective action procedures lead to design changes, and finally these defects get fixed.
Later on, either the market or the company's management conclude that 70& is not enough. Therefore a task force is initiated, which is able to find causes for another 20% of failures.
Later on, 90% is still considered not good enough, therefore the company approaches an external laboratory, which is able to find causes for another 9% of failures. Now, in addition to 90% of all failures already fixed, another 9% is well understood. It turns out that, despite of understanding the cause, it is either too expensive for the company, or the company doesn't have the necessary knowledge for a fix. The management finally decides that fixing 4% would be a reasonable match with time and budget the company can afford, while the remaining 5% will remain unfixed.

We know that in theory our company could at least fix 99% of all causes if only enough budget was available.
Also, if the company had approached an even better / more experienced laboratory, or many laboratories instead of only one, maybe all 100% of causes could have been identified, and, with unlimited budget available, all of them could be fixed.
But this would be possible only in a world driven by natural laws only. But in our company's world, economic and other rules also play important roles, and there, 94% is the end of the road. May be for a different company, 98% would be the end of the road. Or 85%, or  ...
..
The point is that even the company could do more technically, it couldn't do more economically, and therefore, the remaining 6% of failures will continue to "just happen" = occur randomly.

We can draw this even further:
Does this make any difference? No, because customers wouldn't see any difference.
--> It makes no difference for the MTBF model if companies cannot fix failures, or don't want to fix failures.

Summary:

Key statement:
MTBF considers only random events. What is random and what is not,
depends on ability and will, and therefore on the "statistical distance" of the viewer.


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4.4   MTBF Calculation from Field Data

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The following information is tailored to field data, but it can also be applied to any other failure data, for example laboratory test data.

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4.4.1 Simple but excellent MTBF Approximation Formula

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Recap of our MTBF example from above:
Never calculate MTBF this way It seems to be a no-brainer to calculate MTBF by dividing the cumulative operating hours by the # of fails, but this is terribly wrong, and, even worse, it produces optimistic results.
MTBF from field data, approximation

Before we show the correct calculation method, we first offer a simple but extremely good approximation, which produces slightly pessimistic results. In worst case it is 1% pessimistic. For example, if the correct result was 1.000 h, the approximation would yield some figure between 990 h and 1000 h.
The diagram below shows in detail the quality of the approximation for data sets with 0 to 20 failures.
MTBF approximation vs. exact
More details on this can be found later in the next but one paragraph, and even more details can be found in my MTBF script (unfortunately available only in German).

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4.4.2 How randomness affects MTBF calculation

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For the zero failure case it is clear that MTBF cannot be calculated with simple math, because division by zero would yield infinitely high MTBF figures. On the other hand, if the amount of cumulative operating hours is not infinitely high, there must be some MTBF figure, and therefore a valid calculation method should exist accordingly.
Here is the fallacy: 
The simple math approach ignores the random nature of the failure events. The following illustrations hopefully explain what this means.
  1. A man on a sightseeing trip reaches a bus stop. Unfortunately there is no timetable, but the man knows that every full hour a bus would stop. His wristwatch tells him the current time, and finally he can conclude how long he has to wait for the next bus.

  2. Same scenario as 1., with the only difference that the man has no access to a watch. He doesn't know the actual time, but he knows that the bus stops every (full) hour.
    Conclusion: The man must wait 30 minutes on average.

  3. Same scenario as 2., with the following difference: The bus comes randomly, and the average time between two stops is one hour. Just to make it clear: The only difference is that we replaced the "timetable property" by randomness. The bus now comes at random points in time, but on average it takes one hour between two stops. The mathematical expression goes like this: The bus arrivals are exponentially distributed with average 1 hour.
    How long must the man wait - on average- when he arrives at the bus stop? One hour.

    Let's draw this further:

  4. Same scenario as 3., with the following difference: When the man arrives at the bus stop, another man is already waiting, and tells him that the last bus was 2 hours ago.
    In this scenario, the bus still comes every hour (on average), but the last stop was already 2 hours ago.
    Is this any different from scenario 3? No, because the information "last stop already 2 hours ago" is just a manifestation of randomness, and the information that it is random, is already given. Therefore the information about the last bus is useless, and the man must wait one hour on average.

    The principle behind scenario 4. may be easier to realize if we put it like this:
    An ideal dice has been cast 30 times with no six. What's the probability of a six in the next cast? --> p = 1/6. The       information "30 times with no six" is irrelevant because the information "ideal dice" is given.
    Lottery makes it really apparent that this is difficult to grasp, since many people believe that numbers (not) drawn in the past has any effect on future drawings.
Scenarios 3. and 4. are absolutely relevant for the MTBF model, whereas 1. and 2. are not.
Randomness somehow challenges the human brain. Random events occur arbitrarily, and are therefore impossible to predict. In a random event scenario, the occurrence of the next event has no relationship with the occurrence of past events. More generally put: The event history is meaningless for the next event.

Key statement:

In a random event scenario, the points in time of events are unpredictable, regardless how much we know about past events. The event frequency is the only information we can obtain from past events.
Future events, of course, will occur with that frequency, provided that all other conditions remain equal.


There are a couple of consequences arising of this, but here we present only one, because otherwise it would go too far:

By applying the MTBF model to a population of units, we say that failure events occur randomly. The only information we can obtain from past failure events is the failure frequency. That past frequency will be the future frequency. The frequency is the only thing we know, therefore the future behavior of the population of units will be the same like the past behavior. This is true regardless of the duration of the past, or more precisely, regardless of how long the units have already been in operation. This finally means that in the MTBF model the units are "ageless", and in particular, every unit can be considered new, regardless of the operating time they may already have cumulated.
There are more interesting consequences. These are described in my 
MTBF script, which is available only in German.


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4.4.3. Exact MTBF Calculation Formula

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Some general math first:

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5. MTBF calculation according to established Standards

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Direct link to MTBF calculation standards.

Field data, if obtained properly, is by far the best data source for MTBF, and even incomplete or even flawed field data is often still better than other data sources. The reason is that the failure information contained in field data comes from units exposed to real operating conditions in real environments, exposed to the behavior of real users. By using failure data, the probability of covering everything that could affect MTBF is higher than with any other data source.
However, there are two general issues with field failure data, with opposite effect:

While some companies never get information at all about how their products fare in the field, the majority of companies is able to get at least some feedback. Typically they don't have established feedback processes, but they somehow manage to derive usable MTBF-relevant information from other processes.
Some companies have established field data collection and evaluation processes (like FRACAS, failure reporting and corrective action system), but only a few of them are designed for delivering sufficiently eligible data in order to obtain reliable MTBF figures. The last sentence clearly means that well-established field data collection and evaluation process are not necessarily a guarantee for reliable MTBF figures, because such processes must be specifically designed for this purpose.

Established international MTBF calculation standards can be conceived as sets of empiric formulas, derived from comprehensive field failure data that have been collected over many years. Only big companies and governmental organizations can stem such efforts, for example:
All these standards have one thing "in common": They produce very different MTBF figures for the same system / component under the same environmental conditions.
In order to explain why, we first repeat a key statement from further above, followed by other possible reasons:

  1. MTBF considers only random events. What is random and what is not,
    depends on ability and will, and therefore on the "statistical distance" of the viewer.

  2. Telecom equipment and military equipment have completely different use cases and failure causes. Moreover, the exposure of telecom technicians and soldiers to their equipment may differ substantially.

  3. It can make a big difference if the entity that establishes the MTBF calculation standard is a customer that buys equipment (the US department of defense), or a supplier selling his equipment (Siemens and Telecom companies).
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