(1) A mathematical technique for analysing stress or failure points. The structure or system is divided into substructures called "finite elements". The finite elements and their interrelationships can be evaluated for the purpose of validation or redesign. FEA software is available for most popular CAD packages.
(2) A technique for modeling a complex structure. When the mathematical model is subjected to known loads, the displacement of the structure may be determined.
The finite element method (FEM) (sometimes referred to as finite element analysis (FEA)) is a numerical technique for finding approximate solutions of partial differential equations (PDE) as well as of integral equations. The solution approach is based either on eliminating the differential equation completely (steady state problems), or rendering the PDE into an approximating system of ordinary differential equations, which are then numerically integrated using standard techniques such as Euler's method, Runge-Kutta, etc.
In solving partial differential equations, the primary challenge is to create an equation that approximates the equation to be studied, but is numerically stable, meaning that errors in the input data and intermediate calculations do not accumulate and cause the resulting output to be meaningless. There are many ways of doing this, all with advantages and disadvantages. The Finite Element Method is a good choice for solving partial differential equations over complicated domains (like cars and oil pipelines), when the domain changes (as during a solid state reaction with a moving boundary), when the desired precision varies over the entire domain, or when the solution lacks smoothness. For instance, in a frontal crash simulation it is possible to increase prediction accuracy in "important" areas like the front of the car and reduce it in its rear (thus reducing cost of the simulation); Another example would be the simulation of the weather pattern on Earth, where it is more important to have accurate predictions over land than over the wide-open sea.
The finite-element method originated from the need for solving complex elasticity and structural analysis problems in civil and aeronautical engineering. Its development can be traced back to the work by Alexander Hrennikoff (1941) and Richard Courant (1942). While the approaches used by these pioneers are dramatically different, they share one essential characteristic: mesh discretization of a continuous domain into a set of discrete sub-domains, usually called elements.
Hrennikoff's work discretizes the domain by using a lattice analogy while Courant's approach divides the domain into finite triangular subregions for solution of second order elliptic partial differential equations (PDEs) that arise from the problem of torsion of a cylinder. Courant's contribution was evolutionary, drawing on a large body of earlier results for PDEs developed by Rayleigh, Ritz, and Galerkin.
Development of the finite element method began in earnest in the middle to late 1950s for airframe and structural analysis and gathered momentum at the University of Stuttgart through the work of John Argyris and at Berkeley through the work of Ray W. Clough in the 1960s for use in civil engineering. By late 1950s, the key concepts of stiffness matrix and element assembly existed essentially in the form used today. NASA issued request for proposals for the development of the finite element software NASTRAN in 1965. The method was provided with a rigorous mathematical foundation in 1973 with the publication of Strang and Fix's An Analysis of The Finite Element Method has since been generalized into a branch of applied mathematics for numerical modeling of physical systems in a wide variety of engineering disciplines, e.g., electromagnetism and fluid dynamics.
Visualization of how a car deforms in an asymmetrical crash using finite element analysis.A variety of specializations under the umbrella of the mechanical engineering discipline (such as aeronautical, biomechanical, and automotive industries) commonly use integrated FEM in design and development of their products. Several modern FEM packages include specific components such as thermal, electromagnetic, fluid, and structural working environments. In a structural simulation, FEM helps tremendously in producing stiffness and strength visualizations and also in minimizing weight, materials, and costs.
FEM allows detailed visualization of where structures bend or twist, and indicates the distribution of stresses and displacements. FEM software provides a wide range of simulation options for controlling the complexity of both modeling and analysis of a system. Similarly, the desired level of accuracy required and associated computational time requirements can be managed simultaneously to address most engineering applications. FEM allows entire designs to be constructed, refined, and optimized before the design is manufactured.
This powerful design tool has significantly improved both the standard of engineering designs and the methodology of the design process in many industrial applications. The introduction of FEM has substantially decreased the time to take products from concept to the production line. It is primarily through improved initial prototype designs using FEM that testing and development have been accelerated. In summary, benefits of FEM include increased accuracy, enhanced design and better insight into critical design parameters, virtual prototyping, fewer hardware prototypes, a faster and less expensive design cycle, increased productivity, and increased revenue.