Recalculating the Problem: The Infinite Potential of Finite Element Analysis.
What is the biggest challenge facing engineering projects today?
Challenges across varying environments means there’s no simple answer to that question. However, If not the biggest single challenge, then certainly a unifying theme is the problem of complexity.
As more complex needs arise to meet fast-changing industries, more sophisticated material and manufacturing innovations enter the design process creating greater complexity that must be accounted for at the verification stage.
“Going from low order complexity to high order complexity requires a shift in how predictive analysis is performed that’s able to see the top-down across a broad range of variables to ensure 24/7-uptime, ongoing project feasibility, risk reduction and cost efficiency.”
For decades engineers have relied on traditional methods such as hand calculations and physical testing for design validation to deliver confidence and certainty pre-rollout.
Although Finite Element Analysis has been around for some time now, uptake has been frustrated by assumptions that the traditional methods are still fit for purpose in every case.
As innovation and complexity accelerate away from legacy methods of design validation, these assumptions are being put under serious strain… and it’s easy to see why.
Understanding The Limits of ‘Tried and Tested’
Hand Calculations & Physical Testing VS Complexity.
If we put the traditional modes of design validation under scrutiny, we can quickly see limitations start to emerge in terms of their ability to provide holistic understanding of complex and dynamic systems and their behaviour in different conditions.
Hand calculations use engineering first principles or formulas derived from empirical to make reasonably reliable predictions about behavioural and resistance attributes. Hand calculations work well so long as the product design is simple enough to be translated into a basic mathematical model to which mathematical principles can be applied. Section properties of structures are critical, and in real world problems they rarely fit perfectly into idealised cases.
So what’s the issue?
As designs gain complexity, with nuanced geometries or material combinations that take them a way from non-linear dimensions, the limitations of hand calculations start to rise to the surface, particularly in measuring multiple simultaneous load types.
Physical testing remains a critical aspect of design validation due diligence and will always have a place in engineering and manufacturing processes. In many cases and contexts, physical tests will either be insisted on, or required by law and legislation, in order for industry acceptance and for markets to adopt new designs and products.
‘And the problem with physical testing?’
Simply put—though not as redundant as hand calculations, physical tests will never offer detail on how close a design, material, component or product was to failing under any given load-case. If you realise after the fact that the structural deflection at a specific point is critical, then you need to repeat the test. Hardly ideal.
The Unique Strengths of Finite Element Analysis
FEA takes the engineering first principles, and reinforces them with computational power offering a much richer picture of complex performance outcomes and a significantly broader range of variables and parameters that can be confidently factored in and measured at the design validation stage.
So what are the top level perks of FEA over hand calculations and physical testing?
- Simulates multiple load-cases and operating scenarios.
- Improve design optimization through access to more performance information.
- Solve non-linear problems (beyond material yield strength).
- Reduces the number of prototypes needed prior to reaching an optimised solution.
- Can greatly improve risk reduction of in-field failures.
- Brings more reliable certainty & feasibility for investors and project stakeholders.
Ultimately, the output of a computer modelled FEA process provides the best possible information with the broadest set of test parameters for deciding whether the design is fit-for-purpose, or whether it needs a design iteration—and all with a few clicks of a mouse. No hard graft, no laboured tests.
‘So why don’t more engineers use Finite Element Analysis?’
The short answer is that ‘they do’.
FEA is becoming more and more common as more engineers understand the benefits. As clients in the market start making the same understandings, FEA will quickly become more sought after as a ‘badge of diligence’ by stakeholders eager to keep project costs down while ensuring 24/7 uptime, longevity and reliability of project implementations.
The cost & time objections.
Those that still avoid FEA often do so assuming it’s complicated to set up and expensive to run. This assumption does hold some water, given that there is a financial and time cost involved in the initial setup, with licensing and training to think about.
However, in the right circumstances, ambitious engineers running high-complexity projects who want to scale capacity quickly and achieve solid results will take on FEA for some, or all of their design validation.
So, what’s the best approach to FEA adoption?
In a word, outsourcing.
Rather than spend the time and effort in upskilling and in-house implementation that makes FEA a native, built-in capacity, many engineers gain the benefit of FEA without the steep upfront costs by partnering with consultancies able to offer specialist FEA knowledge deployed as and when needed to fit ongoing or temporary requirements.
By outsourcing to those who’ve already got the tools, knowledge and experience you can:
- Avoid the steep costs of making FEA a native capacity
- Reinforce design confidence and reduce testing requirements.
- Focus your energy on what matters most for your business
Who can you trust, when outsourcing FEA?
Like with anything, there are good and bad options. The key to selecting an adequate FEA consultancy is in assessing their practices and how they’ve applied those practices in previous work.
Many FEA consultancies will blindly run analyses, at the behest of the client, applying a cookie cutter approach of routine processes and testing models that fail to account for the core pain points and unique, nuanced challenges their clients are looking to overcome. The only way to approach an engineering problem is to start at the beginning and gain the top-down insight of the unique set of factors and considerations for each specific case. Once a project has been fully understood at the base—when solutions have been dovetailed and implemented, and the right outcomes achieved—an FEA consultancy worth its salt will combine the specific project intricacies with standard best practices to efficiently generate solutions.
That’s precisely what we do at Armech Solutions using a structured, process-driven methodology that asks the questions first to gather the insights to understand in detail the overarching goal, before prescribing a model and strategy to achieve them.
‘What’s your process?’
If you’re considering the outsourcing model for your FEA capabilities and need to have an honest conversation that will shed light and resolve the big questions—speak to us, or take a look at some of our case studies.
We’re all about consulting—and that means having the right conversations first that will establish whether or not we’re a good fit for each other to work in harmony with the aims you need to achieve. Here’s an example of our process for a typical finite element analysis project.