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WhatisFiniteElementAnalysis(FEA)?

Introduction
TheFiniteElementAnalysis,alsocalledtheFiniteElementMethod(FEM),isanumerical
techniquetofindnumericalsolutionstopartialdifferentialorintegralequationsoffieldproblems.
Instressanalysisthisfieldisthedisplacementfieldwhereasinthermalanalysisitisthe
temperatureandinfluidflowitisthevelocitypotentialfunction,andsoon[1].
TheFEMdiscretizesthephysicaldomainintosubdomains,thesocalledfiniteelements,defined
byasetofnodesthearrangementofelementsiscalledmesh.Theunknownfieldisinterpolated
byshapefunctions,usuallypolynomialfunctions,dependingonasetofdiscretevariables(i.e.
fieldvaluesatthenodes).Byconnectingelementsthefieldbecomesinterpolatedoverthe
structure.Theunknownfieldquantityiscalculatedviaminimizingafunctionsuchasthepotential
energyinstressanalysisthisprocedureleadstoamatrixofalgebraicequationswhicharesolved
withanumericalscheme.Asaresult,thefieldvaluesatthenodesaredeterminedandextrapolated
overthefiniteelements[1],[2].
Insimplewords,theFEMisanumericalmethodtosolvepartialdifferentialequationsby
discretizingthedomainintoafinitemesh.Numericallyspeaking,asetofpartialdifferential
equationsareconvertedintoasetofalgebraicequationstobesolvedforunknownatthenodes
ofthemesh.BearinmindthatFEAisanapproximatesolutionofamathematical
representationofaphysicalproblem.Thisistosaythat,bestcasescenarioFEAwillreplicate
ananalyticalsolution,whetherthemathematicalmodelisaccordingtotherealphysicalsituation
ornotisanothermatter!

Asimplecantileverbeamundershearforceisdiscretrizedintoasetoffiniteelements.

Versatilityandapplications
ThepowerofFEAisitsversatility.Overothernumericalmethodsmanyadvantagesarise:
applicabletomanyfieldproblems:structuralanalysis,heattransfer,electrical/magnetical
analysis,fluidandacousticanalysis,multiphysics,etc.
nogeometricrestrictions,
boundaryandloadconditionsareeasilyappliedaswellasnonlinearcharacteristics,
manydifferentmaterials,modelsandmathematicalrepresentationscanbeimplemented,
combinedandcoupled.
AlthoughFEAhasitsinherentdisadvantages,ithasbecomewidelyusedinstructuralanalysisdue
tothissetofuniquefeatures.

Solidmechanics
AsIsaid,FEAisextensivelyappliedtostructuralanalysis,alsocalledstressanalysis,whichismy
majorareaofexpertiseandhencethefocusofthisblog.Typically,theinputandoutputvariables
involvedinlinearstaticstressanalysisarethefollowing:
Unknowns:displacements,strains,stresses.
Afiniteelementsolveralwayssolvesfordisplacementsatthenodes.Oncethedisplacementsare
known,othervariablescanbeobtained.Strainsarethenderivedviathecompatibilityequations
fromthedisplacementfield,andstressesaresubsequentlyderivedfromstrainsviathematerial
constitutivematrix.
SolidMechanicsequations:
Equilibriumeqs.
Typicallyinsolidmechanics,anyelement
understaticequilibriumsatisfiesthesesetofequations.
Constitutiveeqs.Thisistherelationshipbetweenstrain
and
stresses.E.g.Foranisotropicmaterial,theYoungsmodulusandPoissonsratiosufficesto
describeHookesLaw.

Compatibilityeqs.
Thesedefinehowthestrainsarerelatedtothe
displacements.Strainsarejustthederivativesofthedisplacements.
Intotal,weneedtosolveaproblemconsistingof15equationsinwhich9arepartialdifferential
equations(goodluckwiththat!).Forsimplecases,analyticalsolutionsareavailableusingthe
Elasticitytheory,butforcomplexscenariosFEAisrequired[3].

Input:Geometry,loading,restraints,materialdata.
Thesolidmechanicsequationsarefine,buthowdoesFEAsolvefordisplacements?

PrincipleofMinimumPotentialEnergy(MPE)
TheFEMusesavariationalapproach.Letsconsideranelasticbodyundertheactionofvolume,
surfaceandpointloads.TheMPEassertsthatthestructureshalldeformtoapositionwhich
minimizesthetotalpotentialenergyofthesystem,thisprinciplewillallowustocalculatethe
displacementsthatsatisfythiscondition.ThePotentialenergy(PE)ofastructuralsystemis
definedasthesumofthestrainenergy(SE)andtheworkpotential(WP)
MPEappliedtoaspringmasssystem:

Singledegreeoffreedommassspringsystem
TheSEofamass(m)spring(k)systemisequalto
theWPofaforce(f)actingintheXdirectionis
andthereforethePEisasfollows:
IfweapplytheMPEprinciple,thePEminimizedinthedeformedconfiguration.Inordertofind
thisminimumletsfindthefirstderivativeofthePEwithrespecttoxandequateittozero:
Whichgivesthepositionofequilibriumofthemassspringsystemundertheactionofasingle
forceneglectingtheworkdonebygravity:
MPEappliedtoageneralelasticbody:
Thetotalpotentialenergyofanelasticbodyundervolume,surfaceandpointforcescanbe

expressedasshownbelow:
,whereepsilonisstrainvectorandsigmaisstressvector,Distheconstitutivematerialmatrix
relatingstrainandstress.
,whereuisthedisplacementvector,bisthevolumeforcevector,tisthesurfaceforcevectorand
Pisthenodalforcevector.Hence,PEisasfollows:
Wecannowapplythecompatibilityequations,thoserelatingstrainsanddisplacements.
mentionedbefore.Indoingso,thestrainvectorcanberegardedasamatrixderivativeoperator,
denotedL,timesthedisplacementvector,u.Finally,thePEiswrittenasshownbelow:
Wegotthetotalpotentialenergyofageneralelasticbody!,butwherearethefiniteelements
inallthis?Nowheretobeseen,yetWhentheFEMisappliedtotheMPEthevolumeand
thereforetheaboveequationisdiscretizedintofiniteelements,withineachelementthe
unknowndisplacementsareinterpolatedusingpolynomialfunctions.Indoingsoweare
assumingthatthedisplacementsvaryinapolynomialfashionwithineachelementwhichmay
notbecorrectthisisrelatedtothesocalleddiscretizationerror.Then,makinguseoftheMPE
wewillbeabletocalculatethederivativeofthePEwithrespecttotheinterpolateddisplacement
fieldandgetthedesiredsolutiontoourproblem.
Firststhingsfirst.Foreachsingleelementofthediscretizedfinitemeshofourelasticbodythe
MPEapplies,andthepreviousequationcaberewrittenasshownbelow.Notethatthe
displacementshavebeeninterpolatedusingtheshapefunctionsandthesuperindexedenotes
elementvariablesofourdiscretizeddomain.

Derivationofthealgebraicequationsgoverningthedeformationofanelasticbody.TheFEMis
usedtointerpolatethedisplacementfieldanddiscretizethedomain.
Nowthatthepotentialenergyhasbeenassessedonanelementbyelementbasis,thetotalpotential
energyofthesystemsimplyaddsuptotheirsum.Thisistypicallycalledtheassemblingprocess.
Theelementstiffnessmatrix,elementforceanddisplacementvectorsrefertothelocalelement
andhavetobeassembledintoaglobalandmuchbiggermatrixcapturingtheglobalstiffness
matrix.Forexample,elementssharingnodeswillcontributetotheglobalstiffnessmatrixtogether.
Thestiffnesstermscomingfromeachdifferentelementisaddedtogethertogetthetotalstiffness
ofthesharingnode.

GlobalassemblingprocessandapplicationoftheMPEprincipleusingtheFEM.
SimilarlytothesinglemassspringsystemwheretheMPEprincipleresultsinanalgebraic
equation,thevariationalapproachproducesasetofalgebraicequations.ThestiffnessmatrixK
andtheappliedloadsvectorFwillbeusedthentoobtaintheunknownnodaldisplacements.
Theprocessisnotyetfinished,therestraintshavetoappliedtotheglobalstiffnessmatrix.Asitis,
thismatrixissingularuntilthenodalrestraintsavoidingrigidbodymotionsoftheelasticbodyare
setinplace.Inotherwords,nostaticequilibriumofthebodycanbefounduntilthebodyis
properlyrestraint.Therestraintnodes,whosedisplacementsisknownarethenremovedfromthe
globalstiffnessmatrix.Thisfinalreducedstiffnessmatrixis,somehow,invertedandmultipliedby

theglobalforcevector.Andthen,andnotbefore,wewillgetthedisplacementvectorunderthe
deformedconfiguration:).
References:
Personally,IstronglyrecommendhavingareadthroughthefollowingreferenceswhichIfind
veryusefultointroduceyourselftoFEA.Cooksbookverywelldeservesanhonorablemention
asitisregardedastheFEAbible.Itisamusthaveonyourshelf!
[1]Cook,R.D.(1995),Finiteelementmodelingforstressanalysis,1sted,JohnWiley&sons,
INC.,UniversityofWisconsinMadison.
[2]Fuenmayor,J.,Rdenas,J.J.,Tarancn,J.E.,Tur,M.andVercher,A.,(2009),Clculo
estructuralMtododeloselementosfinitos,DepartamentodeIngenieraMecnicayde
Materiales(DIMM),UniversidadPolitcnicadeValencia.
[3]Qi,H.(2006),WhatisFiniteElementAnalysis(FEA)?,UniversityofColorado,available
at:http://www.colorado.edu/MCEN/MCEN4173/chap_01.pdf(accessed20May2015).