The following four-article series was published in a newsletter of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME). It serves as an introduction to the recent analysis discipline known as the finite element (FEM). The author is an engineering consultant and expert witness specializing in finite element analysis.
FINITE ELEMENT ANALYSIS: Post-processing
by Steve Roensch, President, Roensch & Associates
Last in a four-part series
After a finite element model has been prepared and checked, boundary conditions have been applied, and the model has been solved, it is time to investigate the results of the analysis. This activity is known as the post-processing phase of the finite element method.
Post-processing begins with a thorough check for problems that may have occurred during solution. Most solvers provide a log file, which should be searched for warnings or errors, and which will also provide a quantitative measure of how well-behaved the numerical procedures were during solution. Next, reaction loads at restrained nodes should be summed and examined as a "sanity check". Reaction loads that do not closely balance the applied load resultant for a linear static analysis should cast doubt on the validity of other results. Error norms such as strain energy density and stress deviation among adjacent elements might be looked at next, but for h-code analyses these quantities are best used to target subsequent adaptive remeshing.
Once the solution is verified to be free of numerical problems, the quantities of interest may be examined. Many display options are available, the choice of which depends on the mathematical form of the quantity as well as its physical meaning. For example, the displacement of a solid linear brick element's node is a 3-component spatial vector, and the model's overall displacement is often displayed by superposing the deformed shape over the undeformed shape. Dynamic viewing and animation capabilities aid greatly in obtaining an understanding of the deformation pattern. Stresses, being tensor quantities, currently lack a good single visualization technique, and thus derived stress quantities are extracted and displayed. Principal stress vectors may be displayed as color-coded arrows, indicating both direction and magnitude. The magnitude of principal stresses or of a scalar failure stress such as the Von Mises stress may be displayed on the model as colored bands. When this type of display is treated as a 3D object subjected to light sources, the resulting image is known as a shaded image stress plot. Displacement magnitude may also be displayed by colored bands, but this can lead to misinterpretation as a stress plot.
An area of post-processing that is rapidly gaining popularity is that of adaptive remeshing. Error norms such as strain energy density are used to remesh the model, placing a denser mesh in regions needing improvement and a coarser mesh in areas of overkill. Adaptivity requires an associative link between the model and the underlying CAD geometry, and works best if boundary conditions may be applied directly to the geometry, as well. Adaptive remeshing is a recent demonstration of the iterative nature of h-code analysis.
Optimization is another area enjoying recent advancement. Based on the values of various results, the model is modified automatically in an attempt to satisfy certain performance criteria and is solved again. The process iterates until some convergence criterion is met. In its scalar form, optimization modifies beam cross-sectional properties, thin shell thicknesses and/or material properties in an attempt to meet maximum stress constraints, maximum deflection constraints, and/or vibrational frequency constraints. Shape optimization is more complex, with the actual 3D model boundaries being modified. This is best accomplished by using the driving dimensions as optimization parameters, but mesh quality at each iteration can be a concern.
Another direction clearly visible in the finite element field is the integration of FEA packages with so-called "mechanism" packages, which analyze motion and forces of large-displacement multi-body systems. A long-term goal would be real-time computation and display of displacements and stresses in a multi-body system undergoing large displacement motion, with frictional effects and fluid flow taken into account when necessary. It is difficult to estimate the increase in computing power necessary to accomplish this feat, but 2 or 3 orders of magnitude is probably close. Algorithms to integrate these fields of analysis may be expected to follow the computing power increases.
In summary, the finite element method is a relatively recent discipline that has quickly become a mature method, especially for structural and thermal analysis. The costs of applying this technology to everyday design tasks have been dropping, while the capabilities delivered by the method expand constantly. With education in the technique and in the commercial software packages becoming more and more available, the question has moved from "Why apply FEA?" to "Why not?". The method is fully capable of delivering higher quality products in a shorter design cycle with a reduced chance of field failure, provided it is applied by a capable analyst. It is also a valid indication of thorough design practices, should an unexpected litigation crop up. The time is now for industry to make greater use of this and other analysis techniques.