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Mesh size in Finite Element models

by Rahul Deshmukh

The finite element analysis softwares have made the life of an engineer easy than
before. The need for first principle calculations is practically omitted from the design
cycle which has eventually resulted in placing the engineer's intuitive approach at less
priority than the software results. The results generated from software may most of the
times considered correct without giving a second judgment to them. The automatic mesh
creation has recently even taken care of the task of creating the mesh of elements
manually. This automatic mesh generation algorithms in the software generate fairly
good mesh most of the times. But it should be kept in mind that just one parameter, the
quality of meshing, influences the results a lot. Mesh quality is a paramount important
parameter during the design through FEM softwares. Though the finer densities can solve
this problem also but it takes a lot of valuable time to run the densely meshed models
and also it requires a large amount of computer memory, especially for large models.
Another problem with densely meshed models is the design iterations the design
iterations will take a longer time to iterate every stage.
The best way to judge the quality of mesh is to compare the FEM results to manual
calculations or model tests or some experimental values. It is easier said than done.
Model tests and experimental values are not available most of the times and they are
difficult to determine for small scale and one of a kind structures. Manual calculations
can support the FEM results but only for simple structures, often FEM is not even
required for simple structures.
Other two options can be used to judge the quality of mesh in a FEM model are Mesh
refinement and Interpretation of results discontinuities.
1. Mesh refinement:
Mesh refinement is a most vital method of judgment of mesh size. If the mesh size is
kept on reducing while FEM analysis after we get smaller until a certain density, the
maximum stress at a certain critical location in structure does not vary much even if we
lower the mesh density further. This indicates that stress in the structure has converged
to a certain value.
This can be explained with an example of the plate with a hole at its center. The tensile
force is applied to the vertical edges of the plate. The plate undergoes under tension due
to this force and stress concentrated around the hole in the center as shown in the figure
below.
For this example, the plate width is 1000mm with a hole at center with diameter
200mm. I started with mesh elements of 100mm length (10 elements along the width
of the plate). As can be seen from curve below, tensile stress goes on increasing from
~130 MPa to ~145 MPa as the mesh elements getting smaller from 100mm to 70mm.
Thereafter, the stress does not vary substantially even the mesh is getting finer to
elements size smaller up to 30mm. Let us put the increase in numbers just to gauge the
increase in stress with respect to mesh density. The mesh size is reduced to half from
60mm to 30mm but the stress increase is just approximately 1% only. So from this
experiment, we can come to the conclusion that optimum mesh size for the plate with a
hole is approximately 70mm or smaller around the area of the hole.

As you can notice already, this method needs mesh and analyze the FEM model several
times to reach a conclusion about stress convergence. It is practical for small models but
for larger models it takes a lot of time and effort to decide the mesh size. To circumvent
this problem, it is the general practice in the industry to have fine mesh around regions
of high-stress concentration (critical regions) and rest of regions of lesser importance
can have coarser mesh.
2. Interpretation of results discontinuities:
In general the FEM softwares calculate the stress at Guass points inside each element.
This stress then extrapolated to the nodes of the elements.

While in ideal case the stress of Guass points of adjacent elements should be same
(Stress flow smoothly), sometimes there is large difference between Guass stress at
adjacent elements. This indicates result discontinuities and needs to be given attention.
The stress discontinuity tend to reduce as the mesh is refined which could be a judgment
of mesh quality of the FEM model.
With reference to the same example of plate in tension

Building on the earlier example, Figure 3 shows the relative difference in unaveraged
stresses at shared nodes in the fillet region of the bracket. These percentages were
calculated by taking the difference in unaveraged stresses and dividing them by the
nodal averaged stress. The finer mesh shown on the right generates much lower relative
differences in the fillet which indicates that this mesh is considerably more accurate. The
percentage difference also indicates the degree of potential error in the solution. While
other error measures can be used, they are generally all based on the difference in the
critical results between adjacent elements at their shared nodes.
It should be noted that it is quite common and perfectly acceptable to have high relative
stress differences in regions farther from the critical locations in your model where
stresses are lower. This is often the case because these regions are not meshed at a
high density and sometimes because they contain singularities. However, it is up to the
analyst to determine if a high degree of accuracy is important in a given region and, if it
is, to evaluate the quality of the mesh in that region. Mesh quality is extremely
important to overall model accuracy for your FEA consulting projects and can ultimately
mean the difference between predicting that a design will or will not fail.