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1 FiniteElementAnalysisMethods
1.1 Introduction
Thefiniteelementmethod(FEM)rapidlygrewasthemostusefulnumericalanalysistoolforengineersand
materials.Thematerialpropertiescanbenonhomogeneous(dependonlocation)and/oranisotropic(depend
ondirection).Thewaythattheshapeissupported(alsocalledfixturesorrestraints)canbequitegeneral,as
cantheappliedsources(forces,pressures,heatflux,etc.).TheFEMprovidesastandardprocessforconverting
governingenergyprinciplesorgoverningdifferentialequationsintoasystemofmatrixequationstobesolved
foranapproximatesolution.Forlinearproblemssuchsolutionscanbeveryaccurateandquicklyobtained.
calculations(postprocessing),suchasdeterminingtheintegralofthesolution,oritsderivativesatvarious
pointsintheshape.Thepostprocessingalsoyieldsimpressivecolordisplays,orgraphs,ofthesolutionandits
relatedinformation.Today,asecondpostprocessingoftherecoveredderivativescanyielderrorestimates
resolutionstoreachauserspecifiedlevelofaccuracy.However,veryaccurateandprettysolutionsofmodels
thatarebasedonerrorsorincorrectassumptionsarestillwrong.
WhentheFEMisappliedtoaspecificfieldofanalysis(likestressanalysis,thermalanalysis,orvibration
analysis)itisoftenreferredtoasfiniteelementanalysis(FEA).FEAisthemostcommontoolforstressand
structuralanalysis.Variousfieldsofstudyareoftenrelated.Forexample,distributionsofnonuniform
conductathermalFEAtoobtaintemperatureresultsthatinturnbecomeinputdataforastressFEA.FEAcan
(CFD)systems.
1.2 BasicIntegralFormulations
ThebasicconceptbehindtheFEMistoreplaceanycomplexshapewiththeunion(orsummation)ofalarge
numberofverysimpleshapes(liketriangles)thatarecombinedtocorrectlymodeltheoriginalpart.The
smallersimplershapesarecalledfiniteelementsbecauseeachoneoccupiesasmallbutfinitesubdomainof
theoriginalpart.Theycontrasttotheinfinitesimallysmallordifferentialelementsusedforcenturiestoderive
differentialequations.Togiveaverysimpleexampleofthisdividingandsummingprocess,consider
calculatingtheareaofthearbitraryshapeshowninFigure11(left).Ifyouknewtheequationsofthe
boundingcurvesyou,intheory,couldintegratethemtoobtaintheenclosedarea.Alternatively,youcould
splittheareaintoanenclosedsetoftriangles(covertheshapewithamesh)andsumtheareasofthe
individualtriangles:
A = A
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Now,youhavesomechoicesforthetypeoftriangles.Youcouldpickstraightsided(linear)triangles,or
isasimplealgebraicexpression.Theareaofacurvedtriangleisrelativelyeasytocalculatebynumerical
integration,butiscomputationallymoreexpensivetoobtainthanthatforthelineartriangle.Thefirsttwo
trianglemeshchoicesareshowninFigure11foralargeelementsize.Clearly,thesimplestraightsided
triangularmesh(ontheleft)approximatestheareaveryclosely,butatthesametimeintroducesgeometric
errorsalongtheboundary.Theboundarygeometricerrorinalineartrianglemeshresultsfromreplacinga
FEAConcepts:SWSimulationOverview J.E.Akin
boundarycurvebyaseriesofstraightlinesegments.Thatgeometricboundaryerrorcanbereducedtoany
desiredlevelbyincreasingthenumberoflineartriangles.Butthatdecisionincreasesthenumberof
andsummations.
Areaisascalar,soitmakessensetobeabletosimplysumitspartstodeterminethetotalvalue,asshown
above.Othertopics,likekineticenergyorstrainenergy,canbesummedinthesamefashion.Indeed,thevery
firstapplicationsofFEAtostructureswasbasedonminimizingtheenergystoredisalinearelasticmaterial.
TheFEMalwaysinvolvessometypeofgoverningintegralstatement.Thatintegrationisalsoconvertedtothe
sumoftheintegralsovereachelementinthemesh.Evenifyoustartwithagoverningdifferentialequation,it
getsconvertedtoanequivalentintegralformulationbyoneofthemethodsofweightedresiduals(MWR).The
twomostcommonmethods,forFEA,aretheGalerkinMethodandtheMethodofLeastSquaresFigure.

Youmaythinkthatthegeometricboundaryerrorcitedforthelineartrianglesiseliminatedbychoosingtouse
exactlyontheboundarycurve,butcandegeneratetostraightlinesintheinterior.(Tospeedplottingofsmall
elements,mostsystemsdrawalltheparabolasastwostraightlinesegments,asontherightinFigure11.)
Thus,theboundaryshapeerrorisindeedreduced,attheexpenseofmorecomplicatedareacalculations,butit
isnoteliminated.Somegeometricerrorremainsbecausemostengineeringcurvesarecirculararcs,splines,
ornurbs(nonuniformrationalBsplines)andthusarenotmatchedbyaparabola.Themostcommonwayto
reducemeshgeometricerroristosimplyusesmallerelements,likeFigure12shows.Thedefaultelement
applicationssomesystemsofferdozensofchoicesfortheedgedegreepolynomialorder,andshapesincluding
hexahedral,wedges,andtetrahedralelements.Hexahedralelementsaregenerallymoreaccurate,butcanbe
morechallengingtomeshautomatically.Tetrahedralelementscanmatchhexahedralelementperformance
byusingmore(smaller)elements,andtetrahedralelementsaremucheasiertomeshautomatically.SW
Simulationusesonlytetrahedralelementsforsolidstudies.
Anexampleofthesmalltwodimensionalgeometricboundaryerrorduetodifferentcurvedshapesisseenin
Figure13whereacirculararcandaparabolapassthroughthesamethreepoints.(Anewmethod,called
isogeometricanalysis,canessentiallyeliminateallgeometricerrors,butitintroducesnewapproximationsin
otherstudystages,suchasintherestraintconditions.)

FEAConcepts:SWSimulationOverview J.E.Akin

Figure13Linearorparabolicelementsneverexactlymatchcircularshapes
1.3 StagesofAnalysisandTheirUncertainties
AFEAalwaysinvolvesanumberofuncertaintiesthatimpacttheaccuracyorreliabilityofeachstageofaFEA
givesanoutstandingdetaileddescriptionofmostoftherealworlduncertaintiesassociatedwithsolid
importantFEAuncertaintiesarehighlighted.
ThetypicalstagesofaFEAstudyarelistedbelow:
1. Constructthepart(s)inasolidmodeler.Itissurprisinglyeasytoaccidentallybuildflawedmodelswith
tinylines,tinysurfacesortinyinteriorvoids.Thepartwilllookfine,exceptwithextremezooms,butit
mayfailtomesh.Mostsystemshavecheckingroutinesthatcanfindandrepairsuchproblemsbefore
youmoveontoaFEAstudy.Sometimesyoumayhavetoexportapart,andthenimportitbackwitha
newnamebecauseimportedpartsareusuallysubjectedtomoretimeconsumingchecksthannative
parts.Whenmultiplepartsformanassembly,alwaysmeshandstudytheindividualpartsbefore
FEAConcepts:SWSimulationOverview J.E.Akin
ofapartisprobablythemostreliablestageofanystudy.
2. Defeaturethesolidpartmodelformeshing.Thesolidpartmaycontainfeatures,likearaisedlogo,
thatarenotnecessarytomanufacturethepart,orrequiredforanaccurateanalysisstudy.Theycan
beomittedfromthesolidusedintheanalysisstudy.Thatisarelativeeasyoperationsupportedby
mostsolidmodelers(suchasthesuppressoptioninSW)tohelpmakesmallerandfastermeshes.
However,ithasthepotentialforintroducingserious,ifnotfatal,errorsinafollowingengineering
study.Thisisareliablemodelingprocess,butitsapplicationrequiresengineeringjudgment.For
simplifiesthemeshgeneration.But,thatcreatessharpreentrantcornersthatcanyieldfalseinfinite
stresses.Thosefalsehighstressregionsmaycauseyoutooverlookotherareasoftruehighstress
concentrationsthatraisethelocalstresslevelsbyafactorofthree.Thedecisiontodefeaturethem
dependsonwheretheyarelocatedinthepart.Iftheylieinahighstressregionyoumustkeepthem.
Butdefeaturingthemisallowedifyouknowtheyoccurinalowstressregion.Suchdecisionsare
3. Combinemultiplepartsintoanassembly.Again,thisiswellautomatedandreliablefromthe
geometricpointofviewandassemblieslookasexpected.However,geometricmatingofpart
interfacesisverydifferentfordefiningtheirphysical(displacement,ortemperature)mating.The
physicalmatingchoicesareoftenunclearandtheengineermayhavetomakearangeofassumptions,
studyeach,anddeterminetheworstcaseresult.Havingtousephysicalcontactsmakesthelinear
problemrequireiterativesolutionsthattakealongtimetorunandmightfailtoconverge.
4. Selecttheelementtype.SomeFEAsystemshaveahugenumberofavailableelementtypes(with
underlyingtheoreticalrestrictions).TheSolidWorkssystemhasonlythefundamentaltypesof
elements.Namely,trusselements(bars),frameelements(beams),thinshells(orflatplates),thick
shells,andsolids.Thesystemselectstheelementtype(beginningin2009)basedontheshapeofthe
part.Theuserisallowedtocovertanonsolidelementregiontoasolidelementregion,andvisa
versa.Knowingwhichclassofelementwillgiveamoreaccurateorfastersolutionrequirestrainingin
finiteelementtheory.Attimesasecondelementtypestudyisusedtohelpvalidateastudybasedon
whatisthoughttobethebestelementtype.
5. Meshthepart(s)orassembly,rememberingthatthemeshsolidmaynotbethesameasthepartsolid.
AgeneralruleinFEAisthatyourcomputerneverhasenoughspeedormemory.Soonerorlateryou
willfindastudythatyoucannotexecute.Oftenthatmeansyoumustutilizeacrudemesh(oratleast
crudeinsomeregion)and/orinvoketheuseofsymmetryorantisymmetryconditions.Localsolution
elementswhereyourengineeringjudgmentestimateshighstress(orflux)regions,aswellaslarge
formedbysplitlines,evenifsuchsplitsarenotneededformanufacturingtheparts.Themesh
Ameshmustlooklikethepart,butthatisnotsufficientforacorrectstudy.Asinglelayerofelements
fillingapartregionisalmostneverenough.Iftheregioniscurved,orsubjectedtobending,youwant
FEAConcepts:SWSimulationOverview J.E.Akin
atleastdoublethosenumbers.
Mostengineersdonothaveaccesstothesourcecodeoftheirautomaticmeshgenerator.Whenthe
themeshgenerationwithverylargeelementsizesinhopesofgettingsomemeshresultsthatcangive
hintsastowhyotherattemptsfailed.Themeshingofassembliesoftenfails.Usuallythemesherruns
numberoftinyelementstobecreated.Youshouldalwaysattempttomesheachindividualpartto
spotsuchproblemsbeforeyouattempttomeshthemasamemberofanassembly.
Automaticmeshing,withmeshcontrols,isusuallysimpleandfasttoday.However,itisonlyasreliable
asthemodifiedpartorassemblysuppliedtoit.Distortedelementsusuallydonotdevelopin
automaticmeshgenerators,duetoempiricalrulesforavoidingthem.However,distortedelements
Youshouldalsonotethatstudiesinvolvingnaturalfrequenciesareinfluencedmostbythedistribution
ofthemassofthepart.Thus,theycanstillgiveaccurateresultswithmeshesthataremuchcruder
thanthosethatwouldbeacceptableforstressorthermalstudies.
6. Assignalinearmaterialtoeachpart.ModernFEAsystemshaveamateriallibrarycontainingthe
linearmechanical,thermal,and/orfluidpropertiesofmoststandardizedmaterials.Theyalsoallow
theusertodefinecustomproperties.Thevaluesinsuchtablesareoftenmisinterpretedtobemore
accurateandreliablethantheyactuallyare.Thereportedvaluesareacceptedaveragevaluestaken
deviationwasassociatedwiththetests.Mosttestsyieldresultsthatfollowabellshapedcurve
distribution,orasimilarskewedcurve.Thetestsforstainlesssteeltendtohavenarrowdistributions,
likethatontheleftinFigure14,whiletheresultsforcastironhavewiderdistributions.Whenyou
acceptatabulatedpropertyvalueasasinglenumbertobeusedintheFEAcalculationrememberit
actuallyhasaprobabilitydistributionassociatedwithit.Youneedtoassignacontributiontothetotal
factorofsafetytoallowforvariationsfromthetabulatedvalue.

Figure14Typicaldistributionsofproportionallimitofsteel(left)andcastiron
Thevaluesofpropertiesfoundinamaterialtablecanappearmoreorlessaccuratedependingonthe
unitsselected.Thatisanillusioncausedbyconvertingonesetofunitstoanother,butnottruncating
elasticmodulusofonesteelistabulatedfromtheoriginaltestas210MPa,butwhendisplayedin
otherunitsitshowsas30,457,924.92psi.Whichonedoyoubelievetobetheexperimentalaccuracy;
FEAConcepts:SWSimulationOverview J.E.Akin
results.Theaxialstressinabarisequaltotheelasticmodulustimesthestrain, o = E e.Thus,ifEis
onlyknowntothreeorfoursignificantfiguresthenthereportedstressresultshouldhavenomore
butyoushouldnotacceptthedisplayednumbersblindly.)
thatthemodelormeshgeometries.
conditions,ornonessentialconditions.Thegeometricregionscanbepoints(intheory),lines,
surfaces,orvolumes.Iftheyarenotexistingfeaturesofthepart,thenyoushouldapplysplitlinesto
theparttocreatethembeforeactivatingthemeshgenerator.Pointforces,orheatsources,are
totalforce,orpressure,actingoverasmallareaformedbypriorsplitlines.
SaintVenantsPrinciplestatesthattwodifferent,butstaticallyequivalent,forcesystemsactingona
smallportionofthesurfaceofabodyproducethesamestressdistributionsatdistantnesslargein
anddynamicscoursesengineersaretaughttothinkintermsofpointforcesandcouples.Solid
solidsandyieldthecorrectstresses.Indeed,acoupleatapointisalmostimpossibletocreate,sothe
distributionofpressuresisprobablymorelikethetruesituation.
windspeed.But,howwelldoyouknowthewindspeedthatmightactuallybeexertedonthe
structure?Again,thereprobablyissometypeofbellcurvearoundtheexpectedaveragespeed.
Youneedtoassignacontributiontothetotalfactorofsafetytoallowforvariationsintheuncertainty
restraintorsupportingconditionsconsiderednext.
8. Determine(ormorelikelyassume)howthemodelinteractswiththesurroundingsnotincludedinyour
model.Thesearetherestraint(support,orfixture)regions.Inmathematicalterminology,theseare
calledtheessentialboundaryconditions,orDirichletboundaryconditions.Youcannotaffordtomodel
supports,smoothpins,cantilevered(encastre,orfixed)supports,straightcableattachments,etc.
ThoseconceptsareoftencarriedovertoFEAapproachesandcanoversimplifythetruesupport
Thechoiceofrestraints(fixations,supports)foramodelissurprisinglydifficultandisoftentheleast
results.Itiswisetotrytoinvestigateanumberoflikelyorpossiblesupportconditionsindifferent
studies.Whenindoubt,trytoincludemoreofthesurroundingsupportmaterialandapplyassumed
supportconditionstothoseportionsatagreaterdistancefromcriticalpartfeatures.
Youneedtoassignacontributiontothetotalfactorofsafetytoallowforvariationsintheuncertainty
ofhoworwheretheactualsupportconditionsoccur.
FEAConcepts:SWSimulationOverview J.E.Akin
9. Solvethelinearsystemofequations,ortheeigenvalueproblem.Withtodaysnumericalalgorithms
thesolutionofthealgebraicsystemoreigensystemisusuallyquitereliable.Itispossibletocauseill
ones,butthatisunlikelytohappenwithautomaticmeshgenerators.
10. Checktheresults.Arethereactionsatthesupportsequalandoppositetothesourcesyouthought
thatyouapplied?Aretheresultsconsistentwiththeassumedlinearbehavior?Theengineering
definitionofaproblemwithlargedisplacementsisonewherethemaximumdisplacementismore
thatsignificantlychangesthevolumeofanelement.Thatimpliestheelementgeometricshape
noticeablychangedfromthestartingshape,andthattheshapeneedstobeupdatedinaseriesof
muchsmallershapechanges.Arethedisplacementsbigenoughtorequireresolutionwithlarge
displacementiterationsturnedon?Haveyouvalidatedtheresultswithananalyticapproximation,or
differenttypeoffiniteelement?Engineeringjudgmentsarerequired.
11. Postprocessthesolutionforsecondaryvariables.Forstructuralstudiesyougenerallywishto
documentthedeflectionsandstresses.Forthermalstudiesyoudisplaythetemperaturesandheat
fluxvectors.Withnaturalfrequencymodelsyoushow(oranimate)afewmodeshapes.Youcan
controlthenumberofcontoursemployed,aswellastheirmaximumandminimumranges.Thelatter
isimportantifyouwanttocomparetwodesignsonasinglepage.Limitthenumberofdigitsshownon
thecontourscaletobeconsistentwiththematerialmodulus(orconductivity,etc.).Contourplots
oftendonotreproducewellinareport,butgraphsgenerallydo,solearntoincludegraphsinyou
documentation.
12. Determine(ormorelikelyassume)whatfailurecriterionappliestoyourstudy.Thisstageinvolves
basedonstressvaluesordistortionalenergylevels,butafewdependonstrainvalues.Ifyouknow
thatonehasbeenacceptedforyourselectedmaterialthenusethatone(withacontributiontothe
overallfactorofsafety).Otherwise,youshouldevaluatemorethanonetheoryandseewhichisthe
andvariationsinmaterialpropertiesaffectthestrengthandunexpectedfailurescanoccurifthose
typesofdistributionshappentointersect,assketchedinFigure15.
13. Optionally,postprocessthesecondaryvariablestomeasurethetheoreticalerrorinthestudy,and
perhapsnottotheproblemtobesolved.Accurategarbageisstillgarbage.
14. Document,report,andfilethestudy.Thepartshape,mesh,andresultsshouldbereportedinimage
form.Assumptionsonwhichthestudywasbasedshouldbeclearlystated,andhopefullyconfirmed.
Thedocumentationshouldcontainanindependentvalidationcalculation,ortwo,fromananalytical
uncertaintiesofthemainanalysisstages,assummarizedinFigure116.
Technicalcommunicationanddocumentationisalwaysimportant.InAmerica,engineersare
youhavetodefendityearslater?Paperhardcopiesarethemostreliableforlongtermstorage.(Can
FEAConcepts:SWSimulationOverview J.E.Akin

Figure116Relativeuncertaintyofmajormodelingstages
Youusuallyassumethatthematerialsarelinear.Ifnot(creeping,hyperelastic,inelastic,plastic,viscoelastic,
etc.),definetheappropriatematerialdataandthenonlinearequationstobesolved.Thenthematrixsystem
iterativeoneduetolargedisplacements,ortheneedtoinsertphysicalcontactinterfaces.
1.4 PartGeometricAnalysisandMeshingFailures
Beforeattemptingmeshingyourpart,forafiniteelementanalysis,youshouldcheckyoursolidmodelfor
potentiallyfatalgeometricflawsthatmaynotbenoticedexceptatgreatlymagnifiedviews.Within
SolidWorksthisiscalledaGeometricAnalysis.Toutilisethatfeature,ageometricanalysischeckthe
Angel_Connectorpartwillbeoutlined:
1. Withthepartopen,gotoToolsCheckwillopentheCheckEntitypanel.
FEAConcepts:SWSimulationOverview J.E.Akin

2. Inthatpanelchecktheboxesformostentities,selectCheck.
3. HighlighteachitemintheResultList.AsyouscrolldowntheResultlisttheshortedgelocationonthe
partisillustratedbyayellowarrow.Eitherthefeatureneedstobeeliminated(best),orthemeshwill
needtobefinethere(ok,usually).

4. Toconsiderapotentialmeshrefinementyoushoulddeterminethesizeofthesmallfeature.Use
ToolsMeasuretoopenuptheMeasurepanel.SelecttheXYZoption,clickonaedgeofthefeature
toseeitslengthdisplayed.

FEAConcepts:SWSimulationOverview J.E.Akin
processfailsandafailurediagnosticmessageappears:

6. RightclickonMeshtoopentheFailureDiagnosticspanel.Scrolldownthelistsoffacesoredgesthat
causedthemeshfailure.Inthiscase,thereisahighlydistortedsurfacethatformedwiththefillets.
Sometimesthistypeofsurfacecanberemovedbysuppressingthefillets,orbybuildingthemina
differentorder.Sometimesthesurfacecansplitbyinsertingsplitlinestomakemoremanageable
regions.Fixingthesurfaceisbetterthathavingtotrytocontrolthemeshinsuchregions.

7. First,trytogetsometypeofmeshoutputbyspecifyingasmallelementsizealongtheedgesofthe
distortedregionMeshApplyMeshControl.Specifyalocalelementsizethatwillassurethatoneor
twoelementswillfitalongthesmallestedge.

FEAConcepts:SWSimulationOverview J.E.Akin
triangles(onefaceofthetetrahedron)wouldbeisosceles.Thatgivesanelementaspectratio(saytheratio
distortedandnotdesirableforanalysisiftheyareinanexpectedhighstressregion.

8. Onemeasureofthequalityofanelementisitsaspectratio.Thinkofthatastheratioofthediameter
oftheenclosingspheretothediameteroftheenclosedsphere.Alternately,usetheratioofthe
longestelementedgelengthtoitsshortest.Anidealaspectratioshouldbenearunity.Checkthe
meshqualitybylookingataplotoftheaspectratiooftheelements.SelectMeshCreateMeshPlot
AspectRatio.Thatshowsanaspectratioofmorethanten,whichisonthehighside(fiveisagood
upperboundgoal).

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FEAConcepts:SWSimulationOverview J.E.Akin

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smallaspectratio,youalsowantthecorneranglesoftheelementtobeequal.Whilethatisnotlikelytooccur
youshouldavoidcornerangleslessthan15degreesortheelementaccuracydecreasesduetotoomuch
distortion(itdevelopsanonpositivegeometricJacobian).Toavoidthatcondition,themeshgeneratorchecks
thegeometricJacobianvalueatanumberofpoints(underyourcontrol)ineachelement.Ideally,allthe
valueswouldbethesameconstant(e.g.allitsedgesarestraight),ortheyshouldnotvarygreatly,andthey
shouldneverreachafatalnegativevalue(sincethatcancauseanegativeelementvolume).
Theotherregionsinthechecklistforthispartarewheretwocurvesbecometangent.Acommoncauseof
failureinmeshgenerationistohavetwosolidregionsortwojoiningsurfacesmeetatanearzeroangle.That
oftenhappensinpracticeandoftenrequiresinterventiontobeabletocreateameshforanalysis.Ifa
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FEAConcepts
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