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The Analogy Study Method in Engineering Mechanics

Article  in  International Journal of Mechanical Engineering Education · April 2013

DOI: 10.7227/IJMEE.41.2.6


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Jianlin Liu
China University of Petroleum


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The analogy study method in
engineering mechanics
Jianlin Liu
Department of Engineering Mechanics, China University of Petroleum, Qingdao 266580,

Abstract The course ‘Engineering Mechanics’ plays an essential role as a bridge and bond between
fundamental and specialized knowledge, and it has become a basic class for most engineering
students. However, there are many complex concepts and formulas to be covered, and this makes it
difficult for students to grasp the spirit of engineering mechanics. One way to solve this problem is to
use the analogy study method in learning. Following this new route, students can find the linear
quantities and angular quantities in theoretical mechanics, and some analogous relations between
stress and deformation for fundamental deformations in mechanics of materials. Through these analogy
relations, students can appreciate the essence of different physical phenomena. Indeed, it seems that
twice as much is accomplished with half the effort.

Keywords engineering mechanics; analogy; theoretical mechanics; mechanics of materials; similarity

‘Engineering Mechanics’ is a fundamental course for engineering students majoring
in a wide variety of subjects – mechanical engineering, engineering mechanics, civil
engineering, material science and engineering, and oceanographic engineering, as
well as those studying for the automobile, mining, aeronautics and petroleum indus-
tries, and geological exploration. In the current higher-education system in China,
the course ‘Engineering Mechanics’ normally has two parts: theoretical mechanics
and mechanics of materials [1]. It has become the bridge and bond between elemen-
tary and specialized knowledge for engineering students. On the one hand, although
classed as a basic course, engineering mechanics is different from truly fundamental
subjects, such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy and geogra-
phy, for mechanics is closer to engineering applications; on the other hand, although
engineering mechanics falls within the definition of ‘engineering science’ proposed
by Prof. Hsue-Shen Tsien [2], it is distinct from the purely technological areas due
to its strict system of logic. Partly as a result of this, and partly because of the large
number of concepts and formulas to be covered, ‘Engineering Mechanics’ has been
regarded as one of the most difficult undergraduate courses. A central concern is
how to get students to master, in a limited time, so many equations and definitions
and to understand the physical mechanisms.
In fact, it is surprising to see that there are plenty of analogy relations throughout
the entire contents of this course. Therefore, we strongly advocate that a new learn-
ing route – which we term the analogy study method – for engineering mechanics.
By this method we can find the connections between different phenomena, and then

International Journal of Mechanical Engineering Education, Volume 41, Number 2 (April 2013), © Manchester University Press
The analogy study method in mechanics 137

infer the behavior or properties of a second object in comparison or analogy with

the known characters of a first object. The method helps students to memorize a
large number of facts and concepts and to grasp the essence of different physical
phenomena. It seems that with this new method students can accomplish twice as
much in learning engineering mechanics, with half the effort.
Such motivations have stimulated the present study, in which we explore the pos-
sibility of using the analogy study method to learn engineering mechanics. The paper
is organized as follows. In the following section we present some interesting exam-
ples of similarities in nature and daily life, spanning all kinds of scale. In the third
section some analogy relations involving linear quantities and angular quantities in
theoretical mechanics are analyzed. Analogy relations for stress and deformation in
mechanics of materials are presented in the following section. Finally, similar phe-
nomena in theoretical mechanics and mechanics of materials are investigated.

Similar examples in nature

Maybe we have already noticed a plethora of similar natural phenomena, spanning
scales from the nano and micro to the meso and macro, and even to the astronomi-
cal scope. Two well known examples are spiral morphologies and hierarchical
structures. The nebula, sunflower seed array, sheep horn, fluid vortex, grapevine,
snail shell and even macromolecule all capture the characteristics of spiral or chiral
shapes. Some typical spiral structures are shown in Fig. 1: the spiral galaxy, water
vortex, climbing plant [3], and DNA with its double-helix structure. We can see that
spiral phenomena are ubiquitous and fundamental.
A related phenomenon is the structure hierarchy, which can be observed in the
branches and roots of trees, different levels of bone, components of the silk cocoon
[4] and so on. In addition, micro/nano hierarchical structure plays a critical role in
the self-cleaning capability of the lotus [5], the super-hydrophobicity of the water
strider’s leg [6] and the strong adhesion forces produced by the hairs of gecko feet
[7], as shown in Fig. 2(a–c). Besides these phenomena, if two bundles of hair are
dipped into liquid, a splendid hierarchical pattern will be formed, as shown in Fig.
2(d) [8, 9], which is the result of competition between the strain energy and surface
energy of the liquid.
Moreover, we are already familiar with some textbook examples of physical laws
with similarities. For instance, a harmonic vibration system and a resistance–induc-
tance–capacitance (RLC) oscillation circuit obey the same vibration equation. The
torsion of a bar can be measured by the membrane analogy or sand-heap analogy,
as they are governed by the same format of equation [1]. Many aspects of fluid
mechanics have parallels in electricity and magnetism, and there are similar field
equations and field quantities. Additionally, a long time ago, the great scientist
Maxwell [10] stated that the shape of a meniscus surface is identical to that of an
elastic sheet, and this was later experimentally verified by Clanet and Quere [11],
and then was analyzed in detail by Liu [12].
Much effort has already been devoted to the similarities between the adhesion of
a droplet and a slender rod on a solid substrate. For example, Pugno [13] pointed

International Journal of Mechanical Engineering Education, Volume 41, Number 2 (April 2013), © Manchester University Press
138 J. Liu

(a) (b)

(c) (d)

Fig. 1 Spiral shapes in nature: (a) spiral galaxy, (b) fluid vortex, (c) climbing plant, (d)
DNA with its double-helix structure.

out that the shape of a carbon nanotube (CNT) cross-section resembles the side view
of a droplet stuck on a substrate. Roman et al. [14] proposed that there is an analogy
between a pendulum, drops and rods. Majidi compared three formulations for an
elastic material adhering to a rigid surface – from stationary principles, the surface
integral of Eshelby’s energy–momentum tensor, and the configuration of a force
balance [15]. More recently, Liu and Xia [16] pointed out that the adhesion of a
droplet, micro-beam and CNT ring on a solid can all be analyzed in the same single
framework, in which the strain energy and surface energy compete with each other
and reach a final equilibrium state. Although the intrinsic boundary conditions for
this sort of problem are fixed, they can be imagined as movable, and the developed
analysis framework can be employed. The bending stiffness, characteristic length,
energy origination, governing equation and boundary conditions among these three
different systems possess close similarities and analogies.
In brief, considering the similarities and analogies across different disciplines, the
analogy study method can be utilized in learning theoretical mechanics and mechan-
ics of materials. This method also paves the way to design new analogy experiments,
and to explore the unity of nature in depth.

International Journal of Mechanical Engineering Education, Volume 41, Number 2 (April 2013), © Manchester University Press
The analogy study method in mechanics 139

Spatular Stalk
Setal area




(a) (b)

(c) (d)

Fig. 2 Hierarchical structures in nature: (a) gecko foot, (b) setae of the water strider’s
leg, (c) two-level structure of the lotus leaf, (d) hierarchical structure of a bundle of strips
dipped into liquid.

Analogies in theoretical mechanics

Let us first consider the analogies in theoretical mechanics. A course on theoretical
mechanics will have three main sections, namely statics, kinetics and dynamics. The
first, statics, is the most fundamental, as it deals with the simplification of force
systems and equilibrium equations. Most students will be very familiar with this
from the middle school stage, and so it is not too difficult for them to understand.
However, kinetics and dynamics are not so easy for students, as these sections deal
with many new concepts and formulas. As a matter of fact, most mechanics quanti-
ties can be grouped into two classes, namely linear quantities and angular quantities.

International Journal of Mechanical Engineering Education, Volume 41, Number 2 (April 2013), © Manchester University Press
140 J. Liu

The linear quantities include displacement s (or vector r), velocity v, acceleration a,
mass m, force F, momentum mv; the corresponding angular quantities are, respec-
tively, angular displacement φ, angular velocity ω, angular acceleration ε, moment
of inertia J, moment r × F, and moment of momentum r × mv. The equations for
these two classes of quantities are very similar, and they must have some internal
connections. The analogy relationships between these sets of mechanics quantities
are listed in Table 1.
In Table 1, three kinds of mechanical quantities are demonstrated in detail, namely
kinetic, inertia and force. First, from Table 1 we can clearly see that the angular
quantities, including angular displacement, angular velocity and angular accelera-
tion, are in lower orders than the corresponding linear quantities. Secondly, if two
mechanical quantities are properly combined, new mechanical quantities, such as
force (F = ma), moment (M = r × F), momentum (P = mv), impulse (I = Ft), moment
of momentum (Lo = r × mv), kinetic energy ( T = mv 2 ) and work (W = Fs) can be
produced. Moreover, the most important theorems in Table 1 are Newton’s second
law, the theorem of momentum, the theorem of moment on momentum, and the
theorem of kinetic energy. For a rigid body, Newton’s second law corresponds to
the theorem of momentum, and degenerates to the mass center motion equation of
a rigid body:

maC = ∑ Fi (1)

TABLE 1 Linear and angular quantities in theoretical mechanics

Mechanics quantity Linear quantity Angular quantity Connection

Displacement r = r(t) φ = φ(t) s = φr

s = s(t)
. .
Velocity v=r ω=φ ν = ωr
Acceleration a = v. = r̈ ε = ω. = φ̈ aτ = εr
aτ = v = s̈
Inertia m J J = Σmiri2
Force F = ma M = Jε Mo(F) = r × F
Lo = Mo(mv) = r × (mv)
Momentum P = mv L0 = Jω
Theorem of dP dLo
=∑F =∑M
momentum dt dt
1 1
Kinetic energy T = mv 2 T = Jω 2 dT = dW
2 2 T2 − T1 = W
Work T = ∫ Fds W = ∫ Mdϕ
C ϕ

International Journal of Mechanical Engineering Education, Volume 41, Number 2 (April 2013), © Manchester University Press
The analogy study method in mechanics 141

where aC is the acceleration of the mass center of the rigid body, and ΣFi is its
resultant force. Similarly, the theorem of angular momentum can be reduced to the
differential equation for a rigid body’s motion on a fixed axis:

J z ε = ∑ Mi (2)

where Jz is the inertial moment for the rigid body on a fixed z-axis, and ΣMi is the
resultant moment.
If students can grasp these relations, they will have a good overview of the whole
substance of theoretical mechanics.

Analogies in mechanics of materials

At the start of the ‘Mechanics of Materials’ course, teachers always point out that
it has three sections: strength, rigidity and stability. Strength refers to the stress state
of a structure and its ability to resist collapse; rigidity refers to the ability to resist
deformation; and the concept of stability is addressed in terms of Euler rod instabil-
ity as a study case. Although they are different properties of materials and structures,
these three mechanics behaviors can be explored to show some internal connections.
The concepts of strength, rigidity and stability are illustrated through several kinds
of fundamental deformations and a combined deformation. The fundamental defor-
mations incorporate tension, compression, bending, torsion and shear, which demand
a large number of formulas and constants of materials. This makes it difficult for
students to learn the subject quickly. In fact, though, through the analogy method,
it is found that these formulas have strong similarities. For example, the normal
stress, σ, or shear stress, τ, in the fundamental deformation is the ratio between the
generalized force (N, Q, T or M) and structural parameter (A, Ip or Iz), as shown in
Table 2. The deformations of the structure involve stretch or compression, Δl, torsion
angle, φ, deflection, y, and so on, whose expressions also have interesting analogy
Under the framework of infinitesimal deformation and with linear elasticity, once
these fundamental deformation laws have been found, the combined deformation
problem can be solved based upon the principle of superposition. In Table 2, all
these analogy connections are listed. Our teaching experience shows that, if these
analogy relations have been mastered, the students can easily remember most of the
contents of mechanics of materials.

Analogies between theoretical mechanics and mechanics of materials

Besides the above-mentioned analogy relations within theoretical mechanics and
mechanics of materials, there are also some internal connections between these two
courses. In the traditional teaching process, the two courses are addressed separately,
for theoretical mechanics mainly deals with forces acting on rigid bodies, and
mechanics of materials primarily involves deformed bodies. In fact, in the infini-
tesimal deformation case, the analysis of the deformed bodies is based upon an

International Journal of Mechanical Engineering Education, Volume 41, Number 2 (April 2013), © Manchester University Press

TABLE 2 Stresses and deformations in mechanics of materials

Deformation type Internal force Stress Strength criterion Deformation Rigidity Hooke’s law
N N Ndx
Tension and Normal (N) σ= σ max = max ≤ [σ ] d ( Δl ) = Tensile stiffness (EA) σ = Eε
compression A A EA
Δl =
Q Qmax Qdx
Shearing Shear (Q) τ= τ max = ≤ [τ ] dφ = α Shear stiffness (GA) τ = Gγ
T T T dx
Torsion Torque (T) τ= ρ τ max = max ≤ [τ ] dϕ = Torsion stiffness (GIp) τ = Gγ
Ip Wp GI p
GI p
M M max Mdx
Bending Bending moment σ= y σ max = ≤ [σ ] dθ = Bending stiffness (EIz) σ = Eε
(M); shear (Q) Iz Wz EI z
Bending section modulus (Wz) M
Q Sz* y ′′ =
τ= Q S* EI z
Iz b τ max = max z,max ≤ [τ ]
Iz b
Combined Normal, bending σ = σN + σ M σ1 − σ3 ≤ [σ] u = uN + uM + uT – σ = C:ε
deformation moment, torque, τ = τ T + τM σeq ≤ [σ]
shear (N+M+T+Q)

International Journal of Mechanical Engineering Education, Volume 41, Number 2 (April 2013), © Manchester University Press
J. Liu
The analogy study method in mechanics 143

un-deformed configuration. In this case, the deformed body can be viewed as a rigid
body, and the balance equations for rigid bodies can be directly put into use. For
example, for the general force system in space, both the rigid body and the deformed
body should satisfy the following equations of force and moment:

∑ X = 0, ∑ Y = 0, ∑ Z = 0, (3)
∑ M = 0, ∑ M = 0, ∑ M = 0
x y z

These are the most fundamental equations both in theoretical mechanics and mechan-
ics of materials.
Applying the above equilibrium equations to a beam with large displacement, the
slope angle at an arbitrary point, θ, should fulfill the following governing equation
in mechanics of materials [17]:

θ + α 2 sin θ = 0 (4)

where α2 = P/(EI), P is the external force and EI the bending stiffness of the beam.
In theoretical mechanics, using the dynamic equation, one can get the governing
equation of a pendulum with a fixed axis, which is written as:
ϕ + β 2 sin ϕ = 0 (5)
where β2 = mgl/J, l is the total length of the pendulum, J is the moment of inertia,
and φ the angle between the lines of the pendulum and the vertical direction, as
schematized in Fig. 3. It is amazing to see that the two different problems are satis-
fied by the same equation after some parameter displacement, and so that equation
acts as a bridge between statics and dynamics. In fact, this feature is only one special
case of the famous Kirchhoff analogy.
In what follows, one can notice that the Euler instability of a slender rod can be
analogous to the kinetic stability phenomenon in theoretical mechanics, as schema-
tized in Fig. 4. When the external load is smaller than the critical load, the straight-

(a) (b)

Fig. 3 Schematic of (a) a cantilever with large displacement and (b) the dynamics of
a pendulum.

International Journal of Mechanical Engineering Education, Volume 41, Number 2 (April 2013), © Manchester University Press
144 J. Liu

(a) (b)

Fig. 4 Schematic of the stabilities of (a) an Euler rod and (b) a ball on a rough substrate.

line state of the Euler rod is stable. This means that the bent rod can go back to its
original position once the disturbance is cancelled. This example corresponds to the
situation of a small ball sitting at the bottom of a curved surface, where it is inher-
ently stable. When the load is bigger than the critical load, the straight-line configu-
ration of the Euler rod is not stable, and it corresponds to a small ball balanced at
the apex of a curved surface. This kind of analogy helps students understand the
essence of elastic stability.

In conclusion, the course on ‘Engineering Mechanics’ has two parts, namely theo-
retical mechanics and mechanics of materials. In theoretical mechanics, there are
quantitative analogy relations between the linear quantities and angular quantities.
Additionally, the expressions of stress and deformation for the fundamental deforma-
tions in mechanics of materials have similar formulas. Moreover, some concepts and
equations from theoretical mechanics and mechanics of materials have similar
analogy relations. The models for a rigid body and an elastic body with infinitesimal
deformation can obey the same governing equation after parameter displacement.
The formula for the motion of a pendulum with a fixed axis in theoretical mechan-
ics has analogy relations to the large deformation equation of a beam in mechanics
of materials. Furthermore, from the viewpoint of the kinetic stability of a ball, we
can get a deep understanding of Euler rod instability.
Through the full exploration of all kinds of analogy relations in engineering
mechanics, it is found that there are many formulas with similarities. In using this
analogy study method, students can easily master a large number of concepts and
formulas. It is beneficial for them to have an overview of mechanics, and then twice

International Journal of Mechanical Engineering Education, Volume 41, Number 2 (April 2013), © Manchester University Press
The analogy study method in mechanics 145

as much can be accomplished with half the effort. This new study method also opens
a new path to design new types of analogy experiment, and to gain full insight of
the unity of nature.

The project was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China
(11272357 and 11320003), the Opening Project of the State Key Laboratory of
Nonlinear Mechanics in Chinese Academy of Sciences (LNM201319), the Science
Foundation for Distinguished Young Scholars of Shandong Province (JQ201302),
and the Scientific Research Foundation for the Returned Overseas Chinese Scholars,
State Education Ministry.

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International Journal of Mechanical Engineering Education, Volume 41, Number 2 (April 2013), © Manchester University Press

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