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Consider the segment of a beam shown in Figure 1, with length dx, referred to coordinate
axes x and z. The segment receives a distributed load p(x) and its left-hand side receives a
bending moment M, and shear force V. Note that these are the actions, on the segment,
from the rest of the beam to the left of the segment. Likewise, the right-hand side of the
segment receives actions from the rest of the beam to the right. However, the bending
moment and the shear force at the right may be slightly different from those at the left,
because from the left-hand side to the right-hand side there has been a change in the
coordinate x. Thus, we may have a bending moment M + (dM/dx) dx , and a shear force
V + (dV/dx)dx, using differential calculus to express the small change in these functions.

Figure 1. Beam Segment in Equilibrium.

The beam must be in equilibrium, and any segment of the beam must also be in
equilibrium under the actions applied to it. Summation of vertical forces equal to zero,
and summation of moments equal to zero leads to the following equations of equilibrium:

= p (x)

= V

which can be combined into a third equation of equilibrium,


d 2M
= p( x)
dx 2


Now, the deformation of the beam in bending is assumed to be such that the beam crosssection remains flat and rotates as a rigid body. For small deformations, this angle of
rotation is further assumed equal to the slope of the deflected shape of the beam. If the
bending deflection is the function w(x), shown in Figure 1, then the rotation of the crosssection is the slope dw/dx or w(x).
Therefore, from geometry, the axial displacement u(z) at a distance z from the point O in
Figure 1, is
u ( z ) = z w' ( x)


and the strain at a distance z can be calculated from the rate of change of this
displacement along the x direction. That is,

( z ) = z w" ( x)


where w(x) is another notation for d2w/dx2.

Now, the stresses in an elastic material are related to the strains by Hookes Law,
which says that the stresses are proportional to the strain, with the constant of
proportionality called the modulus of elasticity E. That is,

( z ) = E ( z )


The bending moment M is the resultant of the moment of these stresses with respect to
point O:
M = ( z ) z dA


where A is the area of the cross-section. Using equations [4] and [5] in [6], one obtains
M = EI w" ( x)


Equation [7] is a differential equation for the deflected shape w(x). If we know the
bending moment M(x) all along the beam, then equation [7] can be used to calculate the
deflected shape. However, this implies that it is possible to calculate the bending moment
M without having to use, in its calculation, the deformed shape w(x). This can only be
done for statically determined systems, when the bending moment M can be calculated
by equilibrium, without having to use the deformation of the structure.
Thus, Equation [7] can be used directly to calculate w(x) for statically determined
For more general, undetermined systems, equation [7] cannot be used as is. It must be
supplemented with other information which comes from equation [2] (equilibrium).
Then, combining both, and assuming that the product EI is constant,

d 4w
= p( x) / EI
dx 4


Equation [8] is another differential equation for w(x), but much more general than [7].
The right hand side is no longer the bending moment M but just the load function p(x).
And this is data for the problem. Thus, Equation [8] can be used to calculate the beam
deflection when just the applied load is given. This equation can be used for both
statically determined or undetermined systems, and it is called the beam equation.
Equation [8] is a fourth-order differential equation, requiring four conditions (support
conditions) to find the complete solution w(x).
It is important to note what happens when there is no load on the beam, and all actions
are applied at the ends. Then p(x) = 0, and Equation [8] says that then
d 4w
dx 4


The solution must then be a cubic polynomial, of the form

w( x) = A1 + A2 x + A3 x 2 + A4 x 3


with constants A1 through A4 to be determined from the required four support conditions.
The solution of the problem is then achieved, in general, by solving Equation [8]. When
this solution is known, it can be shown that it has some properties. One very important

property is what is known as the Principle of Virtual Work. Let us now study this
property of the solution to Equation [8].
For the solution w(x) there are corresponding strains and stresses . Let us consider
that we perturb the solution by increasing the deformation and the corresponding
strains (it does not matter the means to do this) by an amount . Let us call this
additional deformation, or perturbation, a virtual deformation resulting in virtual
During the virtual deformation, the stresses , which were already there, do some work.
This is called the internal virtual work Wi. It can be calculated by integrating the
work of the stresses along the virtual strains over the volume of the beam:

Wi = dV


For example, if the stresses and strains are replaced using Equations [4] and [5], the
internal virtual work for an elastic beam can be expressed as

Wi = EI w" w" dx


where w is the virtual curvature associated with the virtual displacements w and L the
beam length.
Now, let us prove the Principle of Virtual Work. We start with Equation [11] and
introduce in it Equation [4],

Wi = zw" dV


which, using Equation [6], can also be written as

Wi = Mw" dx


Equation [14] can be integrated by parts,

Wi = [ Mw']0 +

w' dx


and, once again, this time using Equation [1] to replace dM/dx,

d 2M
w dx
dx 2

Wi = [ Mw']0 + [Vw]0


Now, the first two terms in Equation [16] are always zero. For example, a simple
supported end always has M = 0, a clamped end has w=0 (and therefore w = 0), in
either case, the first term is always zero. Similarly, the second term is zero because either
V = 0 at a free end, or w = 0 and w = 0 if the end is supported.
Thus, the internal virtual work contains only the third term in Equation [16]. But using
now Equation [2], we can write

Wi = p w dx = We


where we see that the third term is nothing but the work done by the applied load p(x)
along the virtual deformations (deflections) w. This is called the external virtual work
We .
We have thus shown the following principle of virtual work:
If the solution of the problem, the deflection w(x), is perturbed by adding a virtual
deformation compatible with the support conditions, then the work done by the internal
stresses along the virtual strains equals the external work done by the applied forces
along the virtual deformations.
This is a property of the true solution to the problem. Notice that, in its derivation, we
have not relied on Hookes law to link stresses and strain, only on equilibrium. Therefore,
the principle can be applied to non-elastic beams as well.

For an elastic beam, the principle is written (using Equation [12]),

EI w" w" dx = p w dx



EI w" w" dx p w dx = 0


Using the Principle of Virtual Work:

Suppose that we do not know the true solution, but we take a guess and assume a function
wo(x) to represent the solution. This is a guess that is feasible, that means, it has to satisfy
the support conditions. The assumption wo(x) is called a shape function. Now we say
that for this shape to be the solution it has to satisfy the principle of virtual work. That is,
we force wo(x) to satisfy Equation [19]:

EI w " w " dx p w

dx = 0


Integrating this by parts twice, as before, one can prove that Equation [20] becomes

d 4 wo
L ( EI dx 4 p)wo dx = 0


Equation [21] implies that, by forcing the principle of virtual work on wo(x), we enforce
that the complete integral be zero. Ideally, we would like the integrand to be zero,
because that is exactly the beam equation [8], and then wo would be exactly the solution
w. However, for any guess wo we can only satisfy the beam equation in an integral form,
as shown by [21]. If the beam equation is not satisfied, we then make an error which is
the integrand of [21]. We force that the integral (the sum) of those errors be zero. But still
there are errors from point to point, along x.
That is, the principle of virtual work allows us to obtain approximate answers to the
problem, by guessing a wo . The better the guess, the better the approximation.
For example, for a beam which is not loaded except at its ends, if we assume wo to be a
cubic polynomial, then we will obtain the exact solution, because our guess will agree
with the exact solution which we know is such a cubic polynomial.

This method of guessing shape functions is central to modern computer methods for
solving structural problems, particular the so-called finite element methods, all based
on different polynomial assumptions for the deflections.
Consider the following beam, simply supported, under a concentrated load P at midspan.
We use a guess wo(x) which is
wo ( x) = A sin x / L


Which satisfies wo = 0 at the ends x=0 and x=L, and could be seen to be a realistic
representation of the true deflected shape.
What is the exact solution? Over the first half of the beam there is no load, therefore the
solution must be a cubic polynomial. Similarly, over the second half of the beam there is
no load, so the solution there must be another cubic polynomial. The true solution is then
a sequence of two cubic polynomials matched in deflection and slope at the midspan
point. This is what the solution of the beam equation would give us. But we are trying to
approximate it with the sinusoidal assumption wo .
The constant A is unknown, and must be fixed so that virtual work is enforced. To do this
we replace the assumption [22] in Equation [20]. Notice that A is the deflection at
midspan, L/2.
How do we obtain a virtual displacement? We can use the same shape [22] except we
move (or perturb) the constant A to A, so that

wo ( x) = A sin x / L


Next we perform the required integral for the internal work, giving the left hand side of
the following equation,

EI 4 / L4 A A (L / 2 ) = P A


the right hand side being the external work done by the load P along the virtual
displacement A.

A cancels out in Equation [24], implying that it does not matter how big the virtual
displacement is, leaving A as


48.7 EI


which is the best value for A, and the best we can do with the approximation wo , in the
sense that virtual work principle will be satisfied. Since the sinusoidal approximation is
quite good, the answer has little error. In fact, the exact solution for this problem has a
denominator of 48 instead of 48.7.
In this course we will use shape functions to solve problems in an approximate manner.