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INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL FOR NUMERICAL METHODS IN ENGINEERING Int. J. Numer. Meth. Engng 2004; 60:310 (DOI: 10.1002/nme.

951)

The birth of the nite element method and of computational mechanics


O. C. Zienkiewicz
Professor Emeritus of the Department of Civil Engineering, University of Wales Swansea, Swansea, U.K. and UNESCO Professor of Computational Mechanics, Technical University of Catalunia, Barcelona, Spain

SUMMARY This brief paper attempts to indicate the motivation which led to the development of the nite element method by engineers and shows how later this became integrated with various current mathematical procedures. In the opinion of the writer, the broad denition of nite elements today includes all the known procedures of approximation for solving partial differential equations and allows the users to include a variety of methods which are mathematically acceptable. Copyright 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
KEY WORDS:

nite element method; computational mechanics

1. INTRODUCTION This paper was written as an introductory lecture to the Fifth World Congress on Computational Mechanics held in Vienna in July 2002. As this was the rst conference of the 21st century, it seemed appropriate to outline the history and motivation for the development of the nite element method which forms today the basis of computational mechanics, and to discuss how it reached the present very sophisticated form. Part of the following story has already been presented in some detail by myself in a paper published in 1995 [1]. The development of computational mechanics clearly owes much to the presence of the electronic computer which came on the scene only in the middle of the last century. However, the words computer and computations are much older. In the very rst paper on nite differences in the 20th century, Richardson, in 1910, uses the word computers to describe his assistants who were boys from the local high-school, employed to do the numerical calculations at each iteration. It is interesting to note that Richardson paid a price of N/18 pence per co-ordinate point calculation in which N was the number of digits used and, as his note says, he did not pay if the computers committed errors.

Correspondence

to: O. C. Zienkiewicz, Department of Civil Engineering, University of Wales Swansea, Swansea,

U.K.

Copyright 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Received 10 May 2003 Accepted 1 June 2003

O. C. ZIENKIEWICZ

Though this characteristic differs very much from the computers we use today, it is interesting to observe that the procedures used differed in only a small manner from the calculations we perform today. For this reason, in this present paper I want to concern myself with the background of methodologies used in computation. It is clear to me that the nite element method has two distinct lines of ancestry. The rst of these is the one originated for the solution of engineering systems assembled from simple components. Typical here were steel structures being built at the turn of the century from simple structural elements. Similar problems arose in the design of electrical and hydraulic networks. The second line of ancestry originated in more mathematical reasoning in which the well-dened differential equations, which generally were established in the 19th century, were subject to a numerical solution. At rare intervals researchers used both approaches simultaneously but more usually the developments used were completely separate. I shall now describe both lines of ancestry separately. 2. THE DISCRETE OR LUMPED ENGINEERING SYSTEMS In the eld of solid mechanics or engineering structures, the behaviour of simple components such as rods, beams or struts, can be described very simply from rst principles. The establishment of relationships between the forces acting on such components and the displacements imposed at the end of each component is almost trivial. However, a large number of such components can be put together to build a bridge, or another similar complicated structure. Thus procedures for dealing with such systems had to be developed quite early on. The most obvious treatment, indeed the one which is today adopted in the solution of such complex structures, is the one known as the stiffness method in which the displacements given to the ends (nodes) of an element are related to the forces acting at these ends. The linear relationship between such forces and displacements is known as the stiffness. By assuming the displacements at the junction points as being the unknowns, the total system of displacements is made continuous. To preserve equilibrium the sum of all the forces exerted at the nodes has to be zero. This provides the second set of conditions from which displacements can be evaluated. Analysis based on such displacements was rst suggested by Louis Navier in 1826 [2]. It is fully described in the well-known book by Alfred Clebsch in 1862 [3] which gives details of what we would describe today as the direct stiffness method. Saint-Venant includes the subject in his lectures to the cole de Pnts et Chausses in 1838 [4]. It seems, therefore, extraordinary to me that the Direct Stiffness Method should have needed to be revived and described so many times since. But still Southwell in 1936 [5] and Turner, as late as 1962 [6], referred to the Stiffness Method and again formulated it in detail. Matrices, of course, could well be used for the assembly of a large number of linear components. The use of such matrices appears on the scene at a later date, viz. Fraser and Duncan, 1928 [7], Duncan and Collar, 1934 [8]. Notable in the context of matrices is the work of Argyris in 1955 [9] in which he produces a rather complex form of the stiffness method, now no longer used. This, however, served to illustrate the possibility of using similar methodology in the so-called force approach, which I shall not discuss here. In the context of aircraft structures, shear panels are used for the rst time and the approximation is not quite as simple as with bars and beams. Nevertheless this work does not yet approach the study of continua.
Copyright 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Int. J. Numer. Meth. Engng 2004; 60:310

THE BIRTH OF THE FINITE ELEMENT METHOD

The standard engineering system, identical to the one described for structures, of course, applies in other areas. For instance, the assembly of electrical components to form a circuit can be done in precisely the same manner as the assembly of bars to form a structure. The work of Kirchhoff shows such an approach as early as 1847 [10]. Similarly, the assembly of pipe networks, such as are used for distributing water in towns and cities, follows identical procedures. Here, generally the stiffnesses are non-linear and the solution becomes more complex. Before the advent of electronic computers, only a relatively small number of unknowns could be dealt with in the assembled equations representing the stiffness of a complex structure. But it is of interest to note that Southwell, who developed his relaxation methods as early as 1935 [5], showed that the solution of such problems could be approached iteratively. A direct solution process in which elimination is used, of course, is not practical by hand calculation as human resources would fail rapidly. However, iterative processes, in particular those of the relaxation methods developed by Southwell [1113], allowed very large problems to be solved. I think it is worth noting that Lazarides, as early as 1952 [14], succeeded in solving a structure involving several hundred unknowns. The structure was the Dome of Discovery in the Festival of Britain held at that time. Hardy Cross [15], working in the U.S.A. produced work parallel to that of Southwell at a somewhat earlier date. He did not explicitly form the equation used in the relaxation process, and thus his method lacks the Southwell generality. However, his moment distribution method is known to every engineer who has studied structural frame design from the early 1930s onwards until it was made unnecessary by the use of the modern computer. Now everyone knows that todays electronic computer with its enormous capacity can deal with any discrete system efciently, irrespective of the number of unknowns. However, the question is what is the relation of large discrete systems to the problem of analyzing continua which we are addressing in computational mechanics? The rst ideas on this that come to mind are those in which the network of discrete components, which are placed in some regular pattern, can model the behaviour of the continuum problem which we intend to solve. Such a physical approximation to the continuum has been used by many engineers to model, for instance, the behaviour of plates and shells. They do this by replacing the continuum by an equivalent gridwork of beams, or by representing a simple two-dimensional or three-dimensional continuum by an appropriate assemblage of bars. We see such modelling used in the work of Hrenikoff [16] followed by that of McHenry [17]. Both of them proved the validity of their approximations by comparing them with the appropriate nite difference approximations to the continuum equations, though Hrenikoff uses simple beams as the components while McHenry uses pin-jointed bars. However, such approximations or idealizations are obvious to those who realize that the idea of a continuum is articial and that at some stage of sub-division the continuum becomes simply an assembly of particles (or atoms) behaving in a perfectly discrete way. Perhaps such a sub-division is a natural way of modelling the continuum, even though it does not reach atomic sizes. Certainly attempts have been made, with some considerable success, to use such models to directly represent various materials. However, it is possible to approach the subject more rationally. A giant step forward was taken by Turner et al. [18] at the Boeing Aircraft Company. In the early 1950s they produced a physical model in which the continuum, usually an elastic one, was subdivided into elements of various shapes and sizes. However, this work was not published until 1956. This paper was the rst to use the nite element approximation. The physical approach used in that paper had to wait for a few years until the subject matured
Copyright 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Int. J. Numer. Meth. Engng 2004; 60:310

O. C. ZIENKIEWICZ

and it was only in 1960 that Clough [19] succeeded in showing that a mathematical approach which minimized potential energy for an assumed potential pattern did indeed produce some of the approximations he had earlier derived physically. Therefore a perfectly logical approach to the subject could now be made. Before proceeding further, it is of interest to examine in detail the second approach to solving continuum problems. This is based on a direct mathematical approximation to solving the differential equations which govern the physical problem.

3. THE MATHEMATICAL APPROXIMATIONS One of the most obvious methods for approximating partial differential equations of continua is to cast these equations in simple difference form and then proceed to carry out an algebraic solution. This is the so-called nite difference method. Such early attempts at numerical calculations were developed at the start of the last century. The most serious of these was done by Richardson, published in 1910. He succeeded in solving the problem of plain stress approximation for a masonry dam (Assuan). He solved the rather complicated nite difference bi-harmonic equation by simple iteration and succeeded in dealing with some 250 unknowns. It was a few years later that Southwell realized that the problem of such nite difference approximations gave equations very similar to those obtained for discrete engineering systems. For instance, it was well known that the approximation to the Poisson or Laplace equations, which represent a stressed membrane, could be achieved by a network of strings which were previously tensioned and from which the structural solution could be obtained. This analogy between a membrane and a set of strings allowed Southwell to transfer all his experience of solving the structural problems iteratively, by the relaxation method, to deal with nite difference approximations. His work in the 1940s, which culminated in two books [12, 13] showed for the rst time that the problem of computational analysis was well advanced in solving practical problems. My own work of solving a dam problem, similar to that of Richardsons, allowed some 900 equations to be solved rapidly in place of Richardsons 250. However, there were many alternative methods of dealing with the approximation to continuum PDEs. These became available in the rst half of the 20th century though none could produce, at that time, the complex and realistic solutions obtainable by Southwells use of nite differences. The earliest of these alternative methods was used by Ritz [20] who employed trial functions with unknown parameters to represent the unknown function. He then minimized the potential energy of the system to determine the unknown parameters. The solution thus obtained gave the best approximation for the given trial function set. In 1915 Galerkin showed that the same answers could be obtained by using a weighted residual method in which the same trial functions were employed for both approximation and weighting. However, the weighted residual process was much more powerful as other trial functions and weighting functions could be used. The weighted residual process developed rapidly. Such procedures as collocation (in which the weighting function was simply that of a Dirac delta) and sub-domain collocation (in which the weighting was unity over a sub-domain and zero elsewhere) became available. A summary of such weighting procedures was presented clearly by Crandall in 1955 [21]. Today many possibilities are being explored using different trial functions and weighting functions. The boundary solution methods, for instance, use an approximation in which the trial functions
Copyright 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Int. J. Numer. Meth. Engng 2004; 60:310

THE BIRTH OF THE FINITE ELEMENT METHOD

automatically satisfy the differential equation in the problem domain and thus the only approximation to be done is on the boundaries. Such a procedure was given as early as 1926 by Trefftz [22]. This led to many different types of boundary solutions. In most of the early applications using weighted residual processes, the trial functions were dened over the whole domain by a single set of expressions which generally had to satisfy the forced boundary conditions. Much later it was realized that fully continuous expressions for the trial functions were unnecessary. This allowed the trial functions to be dened in a piecewise manner over sub-domains (or elements). Courant [23, 24] was the rst to realize this. As early as 1923 he indicated that it would be possible to sub-divide a problem into triangles and by imposing simple continuity of the function itself at interfaces, a minimization of the total potential could be achieved. In 1943 he implemented this idea and published the rst paper in which the prototype triangular element was used for solving the torsion problem (Poisson equation). Courant could indeed be credited with the invention of the nite element and, by many mathematicians, he is. However, he did not realize that the process tted so well into the discrete engineering approach previously discussed. Also, the computer was not available in his time to implement the process in a practical way.

4. THE SYNTHESIS Cloughs classical paper, published in 1960 [19], showed for the rst time a full mathematical reason for the success of the sub-divisions of the domain into elements. He showed that by minimizing the total potential energy, the approximate solution would converge to the exact mathematical solution as the size of the elements decreased. At this stage both the intuition, which stemmed from the discrete engineering approach, and the purely mathematical reasoning coincided and both approaches were united. Thus the Finite Element Method became a legitimate and extremely useful tool for solving many engineering and physical problems. A few early pioneers now entered the eld. They included Robert Melosh [25], Richard Gallagher [26], Veubeke [27] and myself [2831]. The work done on plates by Melosh and on three-dimensional analysis by Gallagher were seminal contributions in the USA. A very early paper dealing with the use of rectangular elements in elasticity was published by Szmelter in 1959 [32]. Veubeke, in 1975, introduced for the rst time the concept of mixed elements. My work in the early 1960s started with an attempt to obtain solutions for complex shell shapes. It soon became apparent that a best approximation could be achieved by the use of weighted residual processes which in structural mechanics problems were equivalent to the use of virtual work. This provided a more general approach than that which used potential energy minimization. My rst book in 1967 [31] expanded these ideas and became the basis of later volumes in which the method was further developed. The rst and second editions of this book were alone in the eld until 1971 and I hope claried and explained the nite element method to engineers and mathematicians alike. From the simple linear elements formulated in the early days, there evolved more complex, higher-order elements. It became clear to some of us that the complex functions could, on occasion, use a single element to solve a large problem. In the original weighted residual procedures, only a single domain was used. It soon became apparent that all numerical methods, even including the original simple nite difference methods, could always be described as particular cases in which various trial and weighting functions were used. Therefore, all
Copyright 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Int. J. Numer. Meth. Engng 2004; 60:310

O. C. ZIENKIEWICZ

numerical methods could be considered as particular cases of the weighted residual method or of the nite element method. These generalizations inevitably led to many new developments. New elds or applications were conceived, and new methods of approximation and of interpolation were introduced. Two in which I was personally involved and which are of special importance, are: (1) the development of error estimation [33], and (2) the successful treatment of problems in which non-self-adjoint equations arise, e.g. uid mechanics. To obtain error estimates, a particularly simple method was introduced by Zienkiewicz and Zhu [34, 35]. In uid mechanics the introduction of upwinding, which was already in use in nite differences, led to the development of more efcient algorithms capable of dealing with a wide range of problems. In particular, the CBS algorithm developed by Zienkiewicz and Codina [36] has been widely applicable. Undoubtedly these areas will be addressed and many new procedures will be investigated. However, the question now arises of how long we are still justied in carrying on the research aimed at increasing computational efciency, in view of the computer power available today which is capable of solving inexpensively almost all problems, regardless of their computational efciency. In Section 5 I will try to address this question.

5. THE COMPUTER AND THE FUTURE Much has changed since the early 1960s when the computer entered engineering ofces and universities as a tool for calculation. At that time, a nite element solution involving two or three thousand variables was considered to be large. (One of the greater problems of that decade was a three-dimensional nite element solution of a nuclear pressure vessel in which some 18 000 variables were present.) When the rst three-dimensional solutions were attempted in Swansea, it was apparent that in using simple linear elements, we would need several thousand variables to achieve a reasonable solution for an arch dam. The largest computer then present in England was the Atlas which could crunch that many numbers. However, this machine unfortunately introduced a computational mistake randomly every 20 min or so of operation. In our case, the estimated time for solving a realistic problem was measured in hours and it became almost impossible to achieve any meaningful solutions. It was at this stage that isoparametric elements were introduced by our group. These elements allowed a higher order of approximation to be used and thus the number of variables was greatly reduced. Over the following decades the progress in the development, and therefore the power of available computers, was enormous. By the mid-1980s it became possible to solve uid mechanics problems involving several million variables. This was, at last, the kind of capacity necessary to deal with the ow problems in high-speed aircraft using the simplest linear elements. Today, using even larger numbers of variables, problems can be solved and I understand that one using a billion plus variables has been achieved. This possibility will be discussed further by Professor Oden in his lecture at this Congress, in which he will refer to teraop computing. However, there exist dangers as well as opportunities in the use of this power. Referring to the dangers rst, it is already evident that many users of nite element computational mechanics attempt to use inferior computational methods which, although convergent, can yield acceptable results if, and only if, an excessive number of variables is introduced. It follows that today less emphasis is being
Copyright 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Int. J. Numer. Meth. Engng 2004; 60:310

THE BIRTH OF THE FINITE ELEMENT METHOD

placed on research leading to more economical and efcient methods of computation. Indeed many agencies which sponsor research are quite happy to accept proposals using outdated methodologies providing an impressive amount of computation is involved. Could this lead to the death-knell in expansion of research in the eld of computational mechanics in searching for new and better methods? I hope not, but the danger exists. Therefore we should strive to show that more rened calculation is generally preferable to the use of inefcient methods which rely on the fact that the computer usage is cheap. On the other hand, the possibilities offered by the speed and capabilities of the present-day computer open new doors. For instance, by a return to discrete models we can directly represent the behaviour of new materials. Furthermore, such new areas of exploration which are already attempted today, such as the development of genetic algorithms and neural network concepts, will allow the engineer to compute complex phenomena without the need for the establishment of detailed material models. Similarly, in turbulence, the power of the computer is beginning already to be used for direct modelling. Thus it may well be that the present quest for improved approximation methods may, in future, be superseded by research in as yet unimagined elds.
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21. Crandall SH. Engineering Analysis. McGraw-Hill: New York, 1955. 22. Trefftz E. Ein Gegenstuck zum Ritzschen Verfahren. Proceedings of the 2nd International Congress on Applied Mechanics, Zrich, 1926. 23. Courant R. On a convergence principle in calculus of variation (German). Kn Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Gtingen Wachrichten, Berlin, 1923. 24. Courant R. Variational methods for the solution of problems of equilibrium and vibration. Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society 1943; 49:1 23. 25. Melosh RJ. Structural analysis of solids. Proceedings of the American Society of Civil Engineers 1963; ST4:205 223. 26. Gallagher RH, Padlog J, Bulaard PP. Stress analysis of complex shapes. ARS Journal 1962; 700 707. 27. Veubeke B, Fraeij de. Displacement and equilibrium models in nite element method. In Stress Analysis, Zienkiewicz OC, Holister GS (eds), Chapter 9. Wiley: New York, 1965; 145 197. 28. Zienkiewicz OC, Cheung YK. The nite element method for analysis of elastic isotropic and orthotropic slabs. Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers 1964; 28:471 488. 29. Zienkiewicz OC. Finite element procedures in the solution of plate and shell problems. In Stress Analysis, Zienkiewicz OC, Holister GS (eds), Chapter 8. Wiley: New York, 1965; 120 144. 30. Zienkiewicz OC, Holister GS (eds). Stress Analysis. Wiley: Chicago, 1965. 31. Zienkiewicz OC, Cheung YK. The Finite Element Method in Structural Mechanics. McGraw-Hill: New York, 1967; 272. 32. Szmelter J. The energy method of networks of arbitrary shape in problems of the theory of elasticity. In Proceedings of IUTAM 1958 Symposium on Non-Homogeneity in Elasticity and Plasticity, Olszak W (ed.). Pergamon Press: Oxford, 1959. 33. Zienkiewicz OC, Zhu JZ. Error estimation and adaptive renement for plate bending problems. International Journal for Numerical Methods in Engineering 1989; 28:2839 2853. 34. Zienkiewicz OC, Zhu JZ. Superconvergent patch recovery and a-posteriori error estimation in the nite element method, part I: a general superconvergent recovery technique. International Journal for Numerical Methods in Engineering 1992b; 33:1331 1364. 35. Zienkiewicz OC, Zhu JZ. Superconvergent patch recovery and a-posteriori error estimation in the nite element method, part II: the ZienkiewiczZhu, a-posteriori error estimator. International Journal for Numerical Methods in Engineering 1992c; 33:1365 1381. 36. Zienkiewicz OC, Codina R. A general algorithm for compressible and incompressible ow, part I: the split characteristic based scheme. International Journal for Numerical Methods in Fluids 1995; 20:869 885. 37. Zienkiewicz OC. The stress distribution in gravity dams. Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers 1947; 27:244 247. 38. Zienkiewicz OC, Taylor RL. The Finite Element Method (5th edn). Butterworth-Heinemann: Oxford, 2000.

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Int. J. Numer. Meth. Engng 2004; 60:310