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Chapter 2: Finite Element Procedure


In the previous chapter, the matrix stiffness analysis was used as a mathematical tool
to analyze framed structures, i.e. trusses, beams, frames such as shown in Fig. 1.


Fig. 1 (a) truss, (b) frame

Consider that we are dealing with a continuum such as stress analysis problems of
thin plates as shown in Fig. 2. The matrix stiffness analysis of framed structures as
discussed in the previous chapter cannot be used to analyze this type of problem
because the method only deals with framed or skeletal structures. We need to expand
the stiffness method so that we can analyze continuous structures. The method is
called finite element.

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Chapter 2 Page 1

Chapter 2: Finite Element Procedure

Stress at a
point is

Fig. 2 Continuous structures

The continuous structures such as in Fig. 2 are to be analyzed to obtain critical stress
in it, but there is no mathematical model that can be used to predict the response.
Using finite element, we are able to approximate the solution, i.e. by using an
assembly of small and simple elements which we know the stiffness and solution in
accordance with the matrix stiffness method.
The analysis procedure is by discretizing the plates into smaller pieces called
elements as shown in Fig. 3(a) and (b). The discretized plate now has finite numbers
of elements, node and DOF (hence we call it finite elements). For each element we
can determine the stiffness, assemble them into the system of equilibrium equation
and solve for the nodal displacements, using similar form of equation as used in the
matrix stiffness method.

[ K ]{Q} = {F }

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Chapter 2: Finite Element Procedure

Continuum, infinite
number of DOF


Discretize into smaller triangular

elements, finite number of DOF

or discretize into smaller rectangular

elements, also finite number of DOF

Fig. 3 Example of finite element mesh for plate problem
In FE modeling, the choice of correct elements with certain behavior, properties,
shape and geometries are needed. This is to ensure that the chosen element used can
represent the behavior of the structure and eventually can produce acceptable results.
Common group of elements used in the stress, structural and field analyses are as
shown in Fig. 4 and Fig. 5.

Fig. 4 Common group of elements

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Chapter 2: Finite Element Procedure

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Chapter 2: Finite Element Procedure

Fig. 5 Common types of elements used in finite element analyses

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Chapter 2: Finite Element Procedure

The finite element method (FEM) is a general numerical technique for
approximating the behavior of continua by assembly of small parts (elements). Each
element is of simple geometry and therefore is much easier to analyze than the actual
structure. In essence, a complex region defining a continuum is discretized into
simple geometric shapes called finite element. The elements are called finite to
distinguish them from differential elements used in calculus. The material properties
and the governing relationship are considered over these elements and expressed in
terms of unknown values at element corners. An assembly process, duly considering
the loading and constraints, result in a set of equations. Solution of these equations
gives us the approximate behavior of the continuum.

Fig. 6 Example of problems that can be analyzed with finite element

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Chapter 2: Finite Element Procedure

General Procedures of the Finite Element Method

1. Preprocessing (often created with mesh-generation programs or preprocessor

Define the geometric domain of the problem

Discretize to model most closely the actual physical problem. Total

number of element used and their variation in sizes and types are matters
of engineering judgment.

small enough to give usable result

large enough to reduce computational effort

Define the element type(s) to be used. Choice of element depends on

the physical make up of the body under actual loading condition and how
close the element can simulate the actual behavior of the problem.

Define the material properties of the elements

Define the geometric properties of the elements (length, area, and the

Define the element connectivity (mesh the model)

Define the physical constraints (boundary conditions) so that the

structure remains in place and can be analyzed

Define the loadings, F

2. Solution

Assemble the stiffness matrix K in matrix form. Usually the matrix size
is huge, meaning that a huge number of simultaneous equations need to
be solved (Refer example of Fig. 11).

Solve governing algebraic equations F = KQ for the unknown values of

the primary field variables (displacement, Q for stress analysis problem).

Solution techniques are used to reduce data storage requirements and

computation time. For static, linear problems, Gauss elimination is
commonly used.

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Chapter 2: Finite Element Procedure

The computed values (nodal displacements) are then used by back

substitution to compute derived variables such as reaction forces,
elements stresses and strains. These parameters are directly expressed in
term of the displacement values determined earlier. Strain-displacement
and stress-strain relationships (or equations) are used.

3. Post processing
Analysis and evaluation of the solution results is referred to as post
processing. Post processing software contains sophisticated routines used for
sorting, printing, and plotting selected results from a finite element solution.
Examples of operations that can be accomplished are:

Sort element stress in order of magnitude

Check equilibrium

Calculate factor of safety

Plot deformed structural shape

Animate dynamic model behavior

Produce color coded stress contour

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Chapter 2: Finite Element Procedure

Differential Equation, n =
n = number of DOF

Discretize and model

Formulation of FE

1) Preprocessing

Discrete/element model

f = k q - fp

Nodal forces

System model, algebraic
equation: KQ = F
DOF = finite
Nodal displacement, Q is
2) Solution

Assembly process:
K = Ki
F = Fa + Fp
Fp = Fpi
fpi Fpi
ki Ki

Response, solution
for Q

3) Post processing

Computation of stresses
and strains, i = Biqi
i = Eii = EiBiqi
plotting, etc.

Fig. 7 Finite element procedure

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Chapter 2:
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Fig.. 8 (a) A tappered circular cylinder bar subjecteed to tensilee load r(x) = r0
L)(r0 rL). (b)
( Taperedd cylinder ass single elem
ment using aan average area.
(cc) Tapered cylinder
moodeled as tw
wo, equal-lenngth FE. Thhe area of eaach
eleement is aveerage over thhe respectiv
ve tapered cylinder
lenggth (d) Tapered
cyllinder modeeled as four, equal-leng
gth FE. The areas are avverage overr the
resspective length of cylin
nder (elemennt length = L

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Chapter 2:
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Fig. 9 (a) Displaacement at x = L for tap

pered cylindder in tensioon of Fig. 8 (b)
Compparison of thhe exact and
d the four-element soluution

Fig. 10 Comparison of the compu

uted axial sttress value 0 = F/A0

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Chapter 2: Finite Element Procedure


(a) A plane structure of arbitrary shape. (b) possible finite element model
Nodes indicate where elements are connected to one another
each node has 2 DOFs, i.e. it can displace in x and y direction
If there are n nodes in the figure, there are 2n DOF in the model
Algebraic equations that describe the finite element model are solved
to determine the DOF
Large model results in large size of system of equations
Need a computer for calculation purpose use matrix method
Fig. 11 FE modeling of a plane structure

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Chapter 2: Finite Element Procedure

Fig. 12 Finite element model for a steel column to beam connection

FE formulation
In structural analysis, engineers seek to determine displacements and stresses
throughout the structures which are subjected to applied loads. For many structures,
it is difficult to determine the deformation using conventional or analytical methods,
so the FE method is necessarily used. To formulate the FE equation, the following
steps are generally followed:
1. Choose displacement function within each element. The function is defined
within the element using the nodal displacement values of the element.
2. Define the strain/displacement and stress/strain relationship. The stress must be
related to the strain through the stress/strain law, generally called the constitutive

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Chapter 2: Finite Element Procedure

3. Derive the element stiffness matrix and equations. Methods available:


Direct equilibrium method only suitable for line and one dimensional
element: spring, bar, beam.

If the physical problem can be formulated as the minimization of a

functional, variational formulation is usually used. The methods available
o Principle of virtual work applicable to any material behavior. Can
be used even when the potential function does not exist.
o Principle of minimum potential energy only to elastic materials
o Castigliano theorem only to elastic materials
o Functional method for FE problem outside the structural stress
analysis (field problems)
For 2 and 3 D elements, Principle of minimum potential energy method is
much easier to apply.

Method of weighted residuals - useful when a functional is not readily

available and the when the physical problem is described as a differential
equation. The solution methods for this method are
o Collocation
o Least square
o Least square collocation
o Galerkin most often used. Useful when a functional such as
potential energy is not available.

The above approaches can be used to transform the physical formulation of a

problem to its finite element equation. The equations is written in matrix form
f = kq , where f = vector of element nodal force, k = element stiffness matrix, q =

element nodal displacement. In this class principle of minimum potential energy

will be covered.

Why study the theory of FE?

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Chapter 2: Finite Element Procedure

Many satisfactory elements have been formulated and reside in popular computer
programs. Why cant we just use the programs?
Practitioners desire to understand how various elements behave
Engineers who understand analysis tool will be able to use them to better
advantage, and will less likely to misuse them
Such an understanding cannot be achieved if theory is ignored
Complete computer code may not be studied in detail but concepts and
assumptions behind the FE codes should be mastered so that we can treat the
problem appropriately.

Main issues in this FE study are:

How to determine the stiffness, [k] for different types of elements which
model the behavior of the structure mathematically.
How to handle forces that applied to the system
How to find response within an element
The above will help us to understand what and how codes are written in the
FE software1
How to use a computer program, interpret results and understand their


Answer the followings;


Explain the meaning of DOF


What is meant by discretization?


What are the specialties of finite element method?


Define the stiffness

Writing program is not the focus of this course. A lot of FE software are readily available for use.
Understanding the basic FE procedure, modeling the structures correctly, interpreting the computer
results and knowing their limitations are the main focus of this course.

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Chapter 2: Finite Element Procedure

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