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Numerical Aspects of FEM Aanalysis of Plates

and Shells

Chapter · January 2015


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3 authors, including:

Anna Stankiewicz Adam Wosatko

Cracow University of Technology Cracow University of Technology


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The numerical analysis of plates and shells using the finite element method (FEM) is a bro-
ad branch of modern structural mechanics. The knowledge of the theory and analytical
solutions is indispensable for creating finite element models and carrying out calcula-
tions. In the paper the attention is focused on FEM modelling of elastic shell structures
in membrane stress states, in bending and transverse shear. The search for optimal FE
approximations, quality and efficiency of numerical solutions has become the motivation
for the development of new formulations of FEM in the last 40 years. The work contains
a brief review of selected advanced approaches, among others multi-field finite elements
and hp-adaptivity.
Keywords: plates and shells, finite element modelling, advanced FE formulations, evalu-
ation of numerical solutions
Numeryczna analiza płyt i powłok z użyciem metody elementów skończonych (MES)
jest szerokim działem nowoczesnej mechaniki konstrukcji. Znajomość teorii i rozwiazań
analitycznych jest niezb˛edna do tworzenia modeli w MES i przy wykonywaniu obliczeń.
W pracy uwaga jest skupiona na modelowaniu MES spr˛eżystych konstrukcji powłoko-
wych w stanach: membranowym, gi˛etnym i poprzecznego ścinania. Poszukiwanie opty-
malnej aproksymacji w elementach skończonych oraz numerycznych rozwiazań˛ o dobrej
jakości i efektywności stało si˛e motywacja˛ do rozwoju nowych sformułowań w MES
w ciagu
˛ ostatnich 40 lat. Praca zawiera zwi˛ezły przeglad˛ wybranych zaawansowanych
koncepcji, mi˛edzy innymi opis wielopolowych elementów skończonych i hp-adaptacji.
Słowa kluczowe: płyty i powłoki, modelowanie w MES, zaawansowane sformułowania
ES, ocena rozwiazań
˛ numerycznych
∗ Assoc. Prof., PhD, marad@L5.pk.edu.pl
∗∗ PhD, A.Stankiewicz@L5.pk.edu.pl
∗∗∗ PhD, awosatko@L5.pk.edu.pl,

Institute for Computational Civil Engineering, Faculty of Civil Engineering, Cracow University of Technology

(a) (b)

Fig. 1. Two examples of shell structures: (a) spherical tank of natural gas in Esslingen am Neckar,
Germany c Igelball at commons.wikimedia.org [24], (b) cooling towers of Dukovany Nuclear Power
Station, Czech Republic c Frettie at commons.wikimedia.org [20]
Rys. 1. Dwa przykłady konstrukcji powłokowych: (a) zbiornik kulisty gazu naturalnego w Esslingen
am Neckar, Niemcy c Igelball at commons.wikimedia.org [24], (b) chłodnia kominowa Dukovany
Nuclear Power Station, Czechy c Frettie at commons.wikimedia.org [20]

1. Modelling of shell structures

Thin-walled shell structures of various types are very important structural elements beside
bar and solid structures. Many examples of shell structures can be encountered in civil (see.
Fig. 1) and mechanical engineering.
The general description of thin-walled structures is determined by their specific geometry
with one dimension (thickness) much smaller in comparison to the other two dimensions.
Several mathematical models of thin-walled structures (membranes, bending plates and
shells) have been developed on the basis of different theoretical approaches.
Both in theoretical and numerical formulations of shell structures the main problem is re-
lated to the choice of dependence of various quantities on coordinate z normal to the middle
surface. The problem reduction from 3D to 2D depends strongly on displacement, strain and
stress distributions along the thickness. In theoretical considerations a power series is used to
represent certain quantities as a function of variable z (measured in the direction of the thick-
ness). The mathematical model of thin shells is significantly simplified if the approximation
(1 + z/Rα )−1 ≈ 1 − z/Rα and assumption z/Rα ≪ 1 are used in the definitions of shell
strains and generalized forces. Note that Rα denotes the smaller of two radii of curvature
of the middle surface. Different techniques in Finite Element Method (FEM) are based on
selection of the method of approximation for the tangential and normal directions of displa-
cement, strain, stress fields defined for plate and shell Finite Elements (FEs).
The most popular theories used to describe the behaviour of thin-walled structures are:
Kirchhoff-Love (K-L) theory for thin plates, the first-order shell theory of Budiansky-Sanders
and Mindlin-Reissner (M-R) theory for moderately thick plates and shells. The static and
kinematic hypotheses of these theories are used in numerical formulations.
It should be emphasized that the 5-parameter Mindlin-Reissner theory is more general
than the 3-parameter Kirchhoff-Love shell theory. Therefore, finite elements based on the
former theory can be used to model both thin and moderately thick shells, taking into account
the membrane, bending and transverse shear effects. The difficulty of the analysis of plate and
shell structures results from their complex behaviour with membrane or bending dominated
response or coupling of bending and transverse shear or of all effects in the case of shells.

2. FEM for shell structures

2.1. General remarks
The Finite Element Method can be applied to model structures and to solve various me-
chanical problems (statics, stability and dynamics) providing as a final result the distributions
of important mechanical fields (generalized displacements, strains, stresses or generalized
resultant forces).
The classification of various FE formulations can be made with respect to the descrip-
tion of: i) geometry, ii) translational and rotational displacement fields, iii) gradients of
displacements, iv) strain and stress fields.
The starting point of a formulation can be: i) a set of differential and algebraic equations
of appropriate Boundary Value Problem (BVP), or ii) a variational principle.
For the geometrical description of typical surfaces three coordinate systems are used:
spherical (ϕ,θ), cylindrical (x,θ) or Cartesian (x,y), see Fig. 2. Using preprocessors in FE
computer codes the surfaces are defined and suitable meshes are introduced, see Fig. 3.
Finite elements which are general enough can describe surface structures of arbitrary sha-
pe, having thickness from a wide range. They can approximate a combination of membrane,
bending and transverse shear states or one of them only. A discrete description of the surface
geometry can be added to the other approximated fields. One then makes use of so-called iso-
parametric elements (sub- and superparametric combinations are also possible), which can
represent shells of arbitrary shape, see [49].
In the last 40 years the motivation to work out new formulations of the FEM has been to
reach the following goals: i) enhancement of the approximation of all fields: displacements,
strains and stresses, ii) satisfaction of the continuity conditions for kinematic fields across
inter-element boundaries, iii) assertion of the equilibrium conditions for tractions along inter-
element lines.
There are many computer programs for static, stability and dynamic simulations and for
the design of structures. In the process of computer-aided design, engineers look for an opti-
mal solution, taking into account stiffness and strength design conditions suitable for a given
type of structure. This involves the search for the maximum displacement and/or stress.

x1 = x = ξ1

x2 = y
n R e1 i1 x1 = x
ξ1 = ϕ i2 P
P e2 e1
n i2
b e2 P
R e2 i1 r i x3 = z
i3 i1 e1 x1 = x n
i2 f
ξ2 = θ ξ2 = θ
x3 = z x2 = y a x2 = y x3 = z

(a) (b) (c)

Fig. 2. Geometry description for theoretical considerations for three types of surfaces: (a) spherical,
(b) cylindrical, (c) hyperbolic
Rys. 2. Opis geometrii w rozważaniach teoretycznych dla trzech typów powierzchni: (a) sferycznej,
(b) walcowej, (c) hiperbolicznej

(a) (b) (c)

Fig. 3. Finite element models for three types of surfaces: (a) spherical [19], (b) cylindrical [1], (c) hy-
perbolic [28]
Rys. 3. Modele MES dla trzech typów powierzchni: (a) sferycznej [19], (b) walcowej [1], (c) hiperbo-
licznej [28]

Completing the general remarks, one of the most recent and advanced computer techniqu-
es is worth mentioning: advanced hp-technology, described briefly in Subsection 2.7.7, based
on the works of Demkowicz et al. [18] and Tews and Rachowicz [42]. Very interesting is
the following quote from the latter paper, see p.1968: “We can also estimate accuracy of the
approximate solution. Moreover, we can direct the adaptivity to achieving high accuracy of
user-selected parameters characterizing the solution, usually called quantities of interest, like
local features of the solution, and accuracy of such parameters can be estimated. Adaptivi-
ty and error estimation working in this fashion are referred to as goal-oriented procedures.”
The Reader is also referred to the work of Bischoff et al. [13], where the broad knowledge
on the mathematical and mechanical foundations of FE models for thin-walled structures is

2.2. FE models and variational principles

In FEM, the selection of approximation functions depends on the type of structure (mem-
brane, bending plate, shell) and its mathematical model (set of differential and algebraic
equations), and thus the kinematic relations between generalized displacements and strains.
The earliest displacement formulation of FEM was built using polynomial functions to
approximate the field of generalized displacements (translations and rotations) and treating
strain and stress fields as secondary ones. Then, for the sake of accuracy of the reproduction
of strain and stress fields, more complex formulations have been invented. Further, the awa-
reness of the occurrence of some unexpected numerical effects during calculations resulted
in the development of the theoretical basis, techniques of approximation and corresponding
subroutines in computer codes for new FEs.
In the works of Pian and Tong [33], Reddy [38], Washizu [43], Radwańska [35] one can
find the description of finite element formulations based on appropriate variational princi-
ples, involving original or modified functionals. In particular the following formulations can
be distinguished: i) one-field model (compatible displacement, equilibrium stress), ii) mixed
model with two fields, i.e. either displacement-stress or displacement-strain, iii) mixed model
with three fields (displacement-strain-stress), iv) hybrid displacement, hybrid stress or hybrid
mixed model (the concept of hybrid description is explained below).

The following functionals are taken into account in the formulation of FE models: poten-
tial energy Ip [u], complementary energy Ic [σ σ ], functionals of Hellinger-Reissner IHR [u, σ ]
or IHR [u, ǫ ] and Hu-Washizu IHW [u, ǫ , σ ]. The constraint equations, formulated on inter-
element lines and associated with: i) continuity of generalized displacements or ii) equili-
brium of tractions, can be introduced into original functionals by additional suitable com-
ponents with Lagrange multipliers, generating new functionals. They have their mechanical
interpretation of tractions t(ef) or displacements u(ef) on common inter-element boundaries.
The multipliers are treated as additional functions, approximated on element edge. This is
the basis of the formulation of the class of hybrid FEs.
When FEM is applied in the shell structure analysis, the following two-dimensional fields
are approximated depending on FE formulation (one-, two-, three-field as well as hybrid mo-
dels are possible): i) within element domain Ωe the following fields: ue (x) , ϕ e (x) – genera-
lized displacements (translations and rotations), ǫ e (x), κ e (x), γ e (x) – membrane, bending,
transverse shear strains, ne (x), me (x), te (x) – stress resultants (membrane forces, moments,
transverse forces), and ii) on inter-element lines dΩ(ef) : u(ef) (s) – boundary displacements
or t(ef) (s) – interactions between the elements (tractions). The physical (qu , qσ , qǫ ) or ma-
thematical (α α) degrees of freedom (dofs) are used as coefficients of the approximating func-
tion combinations.
In the general Hu-Washizu principle all variables u, ǫ , σ can be freely varied
1 T
ǫ C ǫ − σ T (ǫǫ − ∂u) − p̂T u dΩ −
IHW [u, ǫ , σ ] = t̂ u d(∂Ω) (1)
Ω 2 ∂Ωσ

From the stationarity conditions of this functional with respect to variations of three fields u,
ǫ , σ – the set of equations for locally formulated BVP is obtained:
σ = C ǫ, ǫ = ∂ u, ∂ Tσ + p̂ = 0 (2)
According to the standard procedure, after applying in FEM independent approximation
of three fields u, ǫ , σ using qu , qσ , qǫ dofs:
u(x) = N(e) (e)
u (x) qu , ǫ (x) = Nǫ(e) (x) qǫ(e) , σ (x) = Nσ(e) (x) qσ(e) , x ∈ Ωe (3)
the following matrix equation for three-field FE is derived (see details in [35]):
 (e) (e)T
  (e)  
0 0

Fǫǫ Eσ ǫ qǫ
 (e) (e) (e) 0
 Eσǫ 0 Gσ u   qσ  =  (4)
   
(e)T (e) p̂ (e) t̂ (e)
0 Gσ u 0 qu fu + fu

The occurrence of zero diagonal submatrices requires an appropriate relationship between

their dimensions to be able to solve the global system of equations.
The above functional is used not only for the derivation of the mixed three-field model,
but it also gives the theoretical background for various alternative concepts.
The calculation of relevant matrices and vectors for different types of FEs requires in-
tegration: i) within the element domain Ωe or ii) over respective parts of problem domain
boundary dΩu or dΩσ as well as iii) over the common edges of adjacent FEs dΩ(ef) . The ty-
pe of numerical integration quadrature (NI) affects the properties of FE matrices and, thus,
the quality of the final solution.

The number of FEs based on different formulations is huge and the literature is very bro-
ad. The Reader interested in more details is referred to the following papers: Yang, Saigal
and Liaw [48] (287 items of literature), Gilewski and Radwańska [21] (329 items of lite-
rature), MacNeal [30], Yang et al. [47] (379 items of literature), Chróścielewski, Gilewski
and Kreja [15].

2.3. Types of FEs

The main classification of FEs suitable for the discretization of shell structures with
geometry-oriented approximation includes: i) solid, 3D finite elements for thick plates and
shells, ii) degenerated FEs related to continuum-based theory, iii) curved, 6-, 8-, 9-node
2D finite elements, iv) flat, 3-, 4-node 2D finite elements, v) 1D finite elements for the de-
scription of axisymmetric membranes, plates and shells. The models of selected types of FEs
are presented in Fig. 4.

(d) v
(a) (b) (c) ϕ w
u 1

v 2
tnode v
Z v u u
Y ϕ2 ϕ2
u xnode w ϕ1
w ϕ1
X w
Fig. 4. Selected models: (a) 3D finite element, (b) degenerated FE, (c) curved 2D finite element, (d) „me-
ridian” 1D finite element
Rys. 4. Wybrane rodzaje elementów skończonych: (a) 3D, (b) zdegenerowany, (c) zakrzywiony 2D,
(d) „południkowy” 1D

The Continuum Based 3D Theory (CBT) can be reformulated into a Continuum-Based

Shell Theory (CBST) to obtain so-called Continuum-Based Resultant Shell finite Element
formulation (CBRSE), see [40]. Another way is to start from the classical Shell Theory and
to formulate the 2D Shell Element (STSE). The relevant information on the subject can be
found, e.g. in [6].
Among many types of FEs one can distinguish elements designed for limited application
(for example FEs developed solely to discretize cylindrical shells) and developed for very
wide use (generally formulated in a nonorthogonal curvilinear coordinate system). A separate
group of FEs is used for discretization of: i) both thin and moderately thick structures, ii) flat
or curved shells.

2.4. Numerical aspects of displacement-based FE modelling

One must be aware of the relations between the displacement, strain and stress fields in
the mathematical model in order to be able to understand the foundation of different FE for-
mulations, especially when the formulation or finite element approximation is non-standard.
The order of polynomials in the shape functions which describe the displacements and the
order of derivatives in the kinematic relations determine the order of polynomials describing
the strain field. Numerical integration (NI) is usually required in the process of computation of
the element matrices and vectors, while the order of interpolation polynomial implies which

quadrature is required. When the number of Gauss points guarantees exact integration we
speak about full integration (FI). The use of a smaller number of integration points than
in FI is called reduced integration (RI). If this reduced order quadrature is applied to all
mechanical actions the integration is called uniformly reduced (URI). If the integrand is a sum
of contributions and different quadrature orders are used for the particular components (for
instance FI for the stiffness associated with normal stresses and RI for the shear stiffness)
then so-called selective integration (SI) is carried out.
We now emphasize the fact that in the displacement-based FE model the use of FI often
leads to an excessive stiffness of the element and element assembly, which is called loc-
king, and as a result too small displacements are computed. On the other hand RI reduces
the stiffness but may imply matrix rank deficiency, i.e. its singularity and associated spurious
zero-energy deformation modes.
Overstiffness (locking) is a phenomenon which occurs in the analysis of both 1D beams
and 2D structures. Below we describe the shear locking (SL) phenomenon which occurs in
membrane finite elements, but also in plate elements, and membrane locking (ML) encoun-
tered in shell finite elements.
In the four-node membrane finite element in pure in-bending state the ensuing spurious
shear strains γxy are zero only at the element centre. One can conclude that selective inte-
gration (SI) with 1 Gauss point (center of the element with coordinates x = y = 0) provides
zero energy related to the shear strain and represents the correct stiffness and energy balance.
The application of SI for the four-node membrane element starts with the separation of stif-
fness contribution related to normal strains ǫx , ǫy from the contribution due to shear strain
γxy . In the former case 2 × 2 Gauss points are used (FI) and in the latter just one point (RI).
For instance this integration scheme leads to satisfactory results for the deep cantilever beam
known as an important test of in-plane bending.
The search for a finite element which could serve the purpose of plate discretization in
a wide range of plate thicknesses faced certain obstacles in FEM progress. The main problem
consists in the fact that a Mindlin-Reissner (M-R) plate does not behave like a Kirchhoff-
Love plate when its thickness is reduced (h → 0). The deflections obtained using the FE
based on the M-R theory do not converge to the results expected for thin plates: they are
too small. The phenomenon is called transverse shear locking (SL). On the other hand an
important advantage of FE (M-R) should be emphasized: it enables a reduction of continuity
requirements. Instead of C 1 -continuity of the deflection function we have C 0 -continuity of
the deflection and angles of rotation of the normal vector which are approximated indepen-
dently of the deflection.
The displacement element Q8/9 Heterosis, which makes use of both Serendipity and La-
grange shape functions, has a proper rank of matrices and, when used in the analysis of plate
bending for h → 0, is free from transverse SL.
The behaviour of elements Q8, Q9, Q8/9 Heterosis was also tested in the problem of cri-
tical load determination for plate buckling, cf. [34]. In the numerical analysis of uniaxially
compressed plate the accuracy of the solution was examined and the results were presented
in terms of normalized critical load pFEM anal
cr /pcr for different options of numerical integration
(FI, RI, SI) and two values of plate slenderness L/h = 80, 800.
The phenomenon of membrane locking (ML) is related to the occurrence of membrane
strains and stresses in pure bending, which means there are problems with reproducing inex-
tensional bending. The two locking types SL and ML intensify each other in curved shells.


x [m]

L 10


R −70 −60 −50 −40 −30 −20 −10 0 10 20
m1(x) [kNm/m]

(a) (b) (c)

Fig. 5. Long cylindrical shell with zone of local bending: (a) scheme of the shell, (b) plot of the meridian
bending moment function (analytical solution), (c) contour map of meridian moment (FEM solution
using [39])
Rys. 5. Długa powłoka walcowa z lokalnym źródłem stanu gi˛etnego: (a) schemat powłoki, (b) wykres
funkcji południkowego momentu zginajacego ˛ (rozwiazanie
˛ analityczne), (c) mapa warstwicowa połu-
dnikowego momentu (rozwiazanie˛ MES przy użyciu programu [39])

Finally, we briefly mention two examples of unexpected effects which occur in numerical
analysis. When a spherical shell loaded by internal pressure is modelled by a coarse mesh of
„meridian” conical shell elements a negative effects in the form of spurious bending moments
occurring at common nodes can take place. When a smoothly curved shell surface is modelled
using flat or slightly warped facets fold lines are formed at the element boundaries inducing
bending effects.
An example of long cylindrical shell with a clamped bottom edge subjected to its own we-
ight and hydrostatic pressure (Fig. 5(a)) shows that the knowledge of analytical solutions can
be very helpful in FEM modelling. A description of local effects in the analytical approach
is obtained using exponential-trigonometric functions. The distribution of meridian bending
moment (ploted in Fig. 5(b)) indicates the need of large density of FE mesh in a zone at
the bottom edge of the shell.
Extended information on the FEM modelling of plates and shells can be found in the works
of Cook et al. [16, 17] and Zienkiewicz and Taylor [49].

2.5. Requirements for FEs

In the following subsections the conditions to be fulfilled by a single FE or a set of FEs
to achieve satisfactory results of numerical analysis are discussed.
The requirements resulting from mechanics and finite element formulation are:
– a FE formulation should be based on an appropriate theory (3D-continuum theory or 2D
shell theory);
– functions used to approximate respective fields within the FE have to be univalent and con-
tinuous, the set of polynomial basis functions must include suitable components to reproduce
special states defined below;
– a FE must be able to reproduce the states of constant strains (internal forces) and the rigid
motions of FE cannot produce a strain field;

– a shell FE should properly reproduce displacements, strains and stresses (internal forces)
for arbitrary states: membrane dominated, bending dominated, bending with transverse she-
aring, mixed states;
– a FE approximation must ensure: i) the relevant class of continuity of the approximated
fields, ii) the balance of interactions at the lines between elements;
– a FE should have a proper stiffness/flexibility; should not produce unexpected spurious
forms of deformation; should not have a singularity i.e. the stiffness matrix should have a pro-
per rank (the correct number of zero eigenvalues related only to its rigid motions);
– geometry description should ensure: i) simplicity and accuracy of approximation of any
surface, ii) results independent of the adoption of local coordinates, iii) isotropy of surface
geometry with respect to two surface coordinates;
– a FE should not be sensitive to shape distorsion; however it is necessary to avoid the fol-
lowing shapes of quadrilateral FE: large aspect ratio, off-center node, highly skewed, near-
triangle quadrilateral, strongly curved sides;
– a FE should be able to model complex cases such as: sharp corners, multiple junctions,
the states described by functions with large gradients (e.g. zone of local bending, see Fig. 5).
Requirements of users of computer codes:
– a FE should be reliable, exclude nonphysical effects; very coarse mesh should not give
unreasonable results;
– the entire set of FEs should guarantee adequate accuracy of the solution on a user-specified
level (with acceptable inevitable error);
– for selected examples the numerical solutions should be consistent with the analytical ones;
– a FE formulation should not use numerical parameters, determined only during numerical
– a FE should be user-friendly and optimized to get the results in a reasonable time, especially
when a sequence of calculation is needed.
Requirements addressed to developers of computer codes:
– a FE should be easy to implement in computer codes and combine with other types of FEs;
– FE subroutines should have their internal verification and be thoroughly checked and pro-
grammed legibly;
– a FE used in a computer code should be clearly described in user manuals;
– the documentation of FEM computer code should include the description of solution of se-
lected benchmark examples, given for example by NAFEMS (National Agency for Finite
Element Methods and Standards), see [31].
A part of the above mentioned requirements have already been stated by Irons in the work
on Semiloof FE [25], see Subsection 2.7.4.

2.6. Examination of FE quality and accuracy of numerical solutions

2.6.1 A single-element test
A single-element test is used to verify the quality of representation of characteristic states,
e.g. (a) unidirectional membrane tension, compression, shear or pure in-plane bending; (b)
pure plate bending or twist, or coupled bending and transverse shear; (c) twisting of a flat
strip; (d) inextensional bending of a cylindrical shell. Moreover, a single-element test can
verify whether displacements representing rigid body motion (pure translation or rotation) do
not induce strains.

(a) (b) 1.0 (c) (d)
4 3 4 3 4 3

Ly Ly Ly 1.0
h h 1.0 h
1 2 1 2 1 2 R
1.0 x, u y
1.0 L
Lx Lx Lx m̂

Fig. 6. Selected examples of single-element models in typical states: (a) membrane in-plane bending
state, (b) plate in bending, (c) plate twisting, (d) pure bending of cylindrical shell
Rys. 6. Wybrane przykłady testów jednoelementowych w podstawowych stanach: (a) membrana w sta-
nie płaskiego zginania, (b) zginanie płyty, (c) spaczenie płyty, (d) czyste zginanie powłoki walcowej

2.6.2 Spectral analysis

Using the spectral analysis of the stiffness matrix of a single element or a suitable set
of elements one can determine the number of zero eigenvalues in the initial range of the
eigenvalue spectrum. This number, with the number of rigid body modes subtracted, gives
the number of spurious modes - mechanisms. This is the way to figure out the order of rank
deficiency of the matrix. The spurious modes occur when a too low order of numerical in-
tegration quadrature is applied. They can propagate over the whole model unless boundary
conditions prevent it.

2.6.3 Patch tests

To perform a patch test (PT) a set of elements of arbitrary shape is selected to discretize
a regular domain, while the set must contain at least one internal node or at least one internal
element. The starting point of a patch test can be the definition of displacement field (PT-D)
or loading (PT-L). In PT-D we derive an appropriate function which represents the displace-
ment field and, according to this function, we determine the displacement values at the nodes
on the perimeter of the patch. Next, the displacements of the internal nodes are computed and
they have to comply with the assumed displacement function. Moreover, it is verified whether
the strains in the elements are consistent with the displacement function. In PT-L an appro-
priate boundary loading is imposed, which implies a specific displacement field, coupled to
a characteristic strain field.

2.6.4 Benchmarks
A set of benchmarks is discussed in the well-known article of MacNeal and Harder [31].
In other papers it is possible to find more advanced test problems, relevant for selected 2D
structures. Each publication describing a new finite element contains the results of test com-
putations which confirm the correctness of the FE formulation and the accuracy of the bench-
mark solution. In [17] this has been done for a so-called swept panel, a plane rectangular
cantilever, a square plate in bending with typical loads and boundary conditions, a cylindrical
shell roof, a pinched cylinder and a hemisphere, see Fig. 7.

(a) q (b) F (c)

L/2 L/2

L h
400 h
Fig. 7. Three popular benchmarks: (a) cylindrical shell roof, (b) pinched cylinder, (c) hemisphere
Rys. 7. Trzy popularne przykłady testowe: (a) walcowe sklepienie, (b) powłoka walcowa, (c) powłoka

2.6.5 Examination of accuracy of numerical solutions

A comparative analysis of numerical and analytical (exact) results is performed either
when one generates new FE software, in particular a new finite element, or when available
software is examined, although one should expect that commercial packages should have
passed all required tests, e.g. according to NAFEMS recommendations, see [31].
The results of convergence tests are presented in a diagram of the relationship betwe-
en a normalized control quantity (i.e. ratio of numerically obtained value and its theoretical
counterpart) and a parameter characterizing the mesh density. We expect an asymptotic con-
vergence of the diagram to the 1.0 level. Alternatively, one can compute an error measure
which should converge to zero.
The description of a new FE should always be completed with proofs of its correctness
and robustness. They are provided by comparing the results of benchmarks with the results
obtained using alternative formulations. If no analytical results are available for a given pro-
blem, a comparative study should be carried out. One possibility is to perform computations
several times using just one package and one finite element: first it is done for a simplified
model and then for more and more advanced models, e.g. with increased mesh density, whe-
reby “stabilization” of result is expected upon mesh refinement. Another option is to compare
results obtained using different finite elements or software packages.
In the computational analysis of plates and shells one often performs a parametric study
to investigate the structural response to various external actions. For instance the ratio L/h
(length to thickness) is varied to examine thin and moderately thick plates or the ratio L/R
(length to radius) is changed to analyze long and short cylindrical shells.

2.7. Selected advanced formulations of FE for analysis of shell structures

2.7.1 Degenerated FEs
Degenerated continuum elements are associated with the essential works of Ahmad et
al. [2] and Kanok-Nukulchai [26]. They do not refer to a shell theory because they are based
on 3D continuum equations modified by the kinematic Mindlin-Reisner hypotheses about
the behaviour of a straight fibre normal to the undeformed middle surface.

The formulation is based on isoparametric approach, two-dimensional shape functions

with different number of nodes and a linear dependence on z-coordinate (in the thickness
In degenerated FEs, used for discretization of both thin and moderately thick shells, be-
side membrane and bending deformation – transverse shearing is also taken into account.
However, these elements, without additional numerical enhancements, are characterized by
excessive stiffness when very thin plates or shells are considered, and also unsatisfactory
representation of membrane-flexure couplings.
Several methods to improve the results obtained using degenerated FEs have been de-
veloped. For instance, uniformly or selectively reduced integration (URI, SRI) is shown in
the literature to improve the results since lower order of numerical quadrature reduces the
negative effects. In particular, the reduction can concern the energy related to the sum of
membrane, bending and transverse shear effects, or to each state separately.
Moreover, one of interesting papers of Belytschko et al. [11] is recalled, in which a stabili-
zation technique is applied. The technique combines the decomposition of effects, projection
of stresses to a subspace and addition of a stabilization matrix using URI. As a result, a robust
FE for nonlinear analysis is obtained.
The degenerated finite elements have also been a starting point of more advanced tech-
niques, e.g. EAS (enhanced assumed strain) and ANS (assumed natural strain) approaches.
Non-standard strain interpolation techniques were postulated for the family of displacement-
based degenerated elements [14]. In this group we mention the SHELM9 mixed (displace-
ment-strain) finite element, whose formulation follows the ANS concept described further
in Section 2.7.6.
2.7.2 Basic shell mathematical model
The approach called BSMM (Basic Shell Mathematical Model) is in fact a shell the-
ory combining membrane, bending and transverse shear relations. A broad description of
the approach is provided in [29]. When a BSMM element is constructed, the interpolation
of the geometry and displacements is used in accordance with the mathematical model of
a shell. In the model the second fundamental form of the shell middle surface or the surface
Christoffel symbols are used. Each of the strain parts (membrane, bending, transverse shear)
is calculated from different displacement and rotation derivatives. This FE can be used to di-
scretize general shell structures, both thick and thin.

2.7.3 Mixed interpolation of tensoral components

This approach was used to formulate a couple of shell elements, known in the literature
under the names MIT4, MIT6, MIT9, used among others in [8,32]. The formulation employs
a convected coordinate system and covariant shear strain components. The displacements are
interpolated as in the degenerate isoparametric elements. A mixed interpolation of the various
strain tensor components is used. The membrane and bending strains are calculated from
the displacement interpolation. The transverse shear strains are interpolated in two stages:
the strain components are first evaluated at certain basis points directly from the displacement
interpolation, next new functions and new points are used for further approximation. Such
interpolation allows one to avoid membrane and shear locking. The general approach using
mixed interpolation of tensorial components and contravariant base vectors provided widely
applicable shell elements.

2.7.4 Discrete Kirchhoff elements

In plate elements formulated according to the more general Mindlin-Reissner theory inde-
pendent approximation of three fields, i.e. lateral displacement and two rotations is applied.
The fields are implicitly coupled by the kinematic relations for transverse shear. In the Discre-
te Kirchhoff FEs – either triangular (DKT) or quadrilateral (DKQ) - the fields are explicitly
coupled by enforcing zero transverse shear strains at selected points. The Kirchhoff constra-
ints are additionally used to reduce the number of nodal parameters. The DKT element has
3 × 3 dofs at the three corner points and is regarded as the best three-node plate element.
The details of the formulation can be found in [9, 10].
In the plate element with acronym DKMQ – Discrete Kirchhoff-Mindlin Quadrilate-
ral [27] a combination of K-L and M-R theories is used to take into account both bending
and transverse shear strains. The latter ones, denoted by γ , are computed with the appro-
ximation of deflections and rotations. However, an additional field interpolation, called γ̄γ ,
constant along the edges, is also used. The model is rooted in the Hu-Washizu functional.
The DKMQ element is based on generalized discrete Kirchhoff constraints, introduced inde-
pendently of the interpolated strains. In the case of thin plates the effect of transverse shear
is automatically reduced. In the opinion of Katili [27] the element has quite beneficial pro-
perties: it passes the patch test for thin and thick plates, exhibits no extra zero-energy modes,
no shear locking for thin plates, is relatively insensitive to geometric distortion, geometrical-
ly invariant, provides good mesh convergence characteristics, it is computationally efficient,
cf. Sections 2.5. and 2.6.
It is worthwhile to describe briefly the so-called Semiloof shell element which belongs
to the second generation of isoparametric degenerated elements, cf. [25]. In this formula-
tion different shape function families have been used for the approximation of the geometry,
and the translations and rotations. A specific feature of the element is constituted by 3 no-
de types: 4 corner nodes and side centres have 3 displacement dofs each (u, v, w), 8 Loof
nodes have 2 rotational dofs each (θ1 , θ2 ), and the central node has 3 dofs (w, θx , θy ). The
Semiloof element requires the condensation of degrees of freedom from 43 to 32, via a modi-
fication of the shape functions using constraint equations. The constraints are a consequence
of the Kirchhoff hypothesis concerning transverse shear.

2.7.5 Flat shell FE with 6 dofs per node

It is not easy to consider the angle of rotation around a normal to the middle surface
as an independent dof of the membrane state and hence a couple of formulations of this
problem have appeared. One of them is authored by Allman [3,4] who uses non-conventional
interpolation and “artificial” rotations. The use of drilling dofs improves the results of the
analysis of membrane equilibrium states, and enables the analysis of folded plate structures,
shell branches, shell connections to beams and stiffeners and slab-column connections.
The combination of membrane elements of Allman with drilling dofs and discrete Kirch-
hoff plate bending elements DKT or DKQ (see Subsection 2.7.4) provides very advantageous
3-node and 4-node shell elements to analyze shells of arbitrary shape discretized using flat
finite elements, cf. [23]. These FEs have 6 dofs per node, convenient transformation of dis-
placement and rotation vectors from local (element or node) coordinate sets to the global one.
They serve the purpose of modelling of complex shell surface intersections and compatibility
with other elements having rotational dofs. In the formulation a reduced numerical integration

is employed to avoid membrane locking. Both the triangular and quadrilateral shell elements
pass the patch test for uniform tension and uniform bending.

2.7.6 Enhanced assumed strain and assumed natural strain concepts

These plate/shell elements are based on the degenerated solid approach in which continu-
um (3D) is reformulated into shell structure theory (2D) by means of generalized strain and
stress resultants, according to an approach called CBRST (see Section 2.3.). In this FE the
membrane, bending and transverse shear actions are not coupled. To enhance the description
of the behaviour of shell structures two concepts are used: i) the EAS approach is used for
membrane and bending components, while ii) the ANS approach is used for the transverse
shear components. The four- or seven-parameter approximation for the enhanced strain can
be used as an optimal choice for bilinear elements, i.e. so-called EAS4-ANS and EAS7-ANS
FEs. The EAS-ANS finite elements provide satisfactory results in the computational analysis
of many benchmarks, e.g. Morley’s skew plate, Scordelis-Lo roof, infinitely long cylinder
under constant bending (which is a locking test).
The finite elements described in this point combine several concepts [5], hence they have
a broader domain of application and improved properties.

2.7.7 Automatic hp-adaptive FEM

As a final progress symptom we provide a short summary of a paper by Tews and Racho-
wicz [42], related to book [18]. In the hp-adaptive finite element technology advanced con-
cepts are used: i) assessment of solution accuracy via a suitable error estimation and ii) opti-
mal improvement of discretization by anisotropic mesh refinement (h-adaptivity) and enrich-
ment of the order of approximation (p-adaptivity). In the course of computations sequences of
meshes are generated, in which FEs are subdivided on the basis of a comparison of the results
obtained for coarse and fine meshes. The automatic selection of the size h and polynomial
order p leads to error reduction and an improvement of convergence towards the solution
treated as exact. The hp-adaptivity is a complex optimization process, especially in the case
of goal-oriented adaptivity. This is particularly important when a solution of complex engi-
neering problems is searched for, since the error minimization concerns the quantity which
is of particular importance to the analyst, so-called quantity of interest (q.o.i.). In the nume-
rical analysis of engineering structures the displacement or stress at a crucial place are often
the quantities of interest.
The described formulation provides a fully automatic computation strategy which ma-
kes use of advanced computer science technology and has wide application potential since
the approach is not constrained by limitations set by complex structures. It is possible to
combine beams, plates, shells and solid blocks, as well as consider jumps of wall-thickness
and openings.
The article started with a photograph of a spherical tank. This section is ended with dra-
wings of a similar discretized structure, analyzed by R. Tews and W. Rachowicz, see Fig. 8.

(a) (b) (c)

Fig. 8. Spherical container – contour maps of: (a) radial displacements in spherical coordinates, (b) stres-
ses σϕϕ , (c) stresses σθθ , with a fine hp-adaptive mesh (obtained from R. Tews and W. Rachowicz)
Rys. 8. Zbiornik kulisty – mapy warstwicowe: (a) przemieszczenia radialne we współrz˛ednych sferycz-
nych, (b) napr˛eżenia σϕϕ , (c) napr˛eżenia σθθ , dla końcowej siatki uzyskanej w hp-adaptacji (otrzymane
od R. Tewsa i W. Rachowicza)

3. Final remarks
The problem of FEM modelling of plates and shells is very broad. The new techniques and
interesting solutions are constantly developed. Due to the limited volume of the paper only
fundamental issues related to FEM analysis are focused on. The discussion is limited to linear
static analysis of plates and shells. The authors do not refer to the issue of stability (this aspect
is broadly covered in the book of Waszczyszyn, Cichoń and Radwańska [44]), the response to
other actions than static, multilayer structures or nonlinear problems. However, some remarks
included in this paper are general enough to be applied in various mechanical problems.
They are taken both from wide literature and own experience gained during the development
of FEM codes as well as analytical and numerical calculations.
The authors are researchers and teachers from the Institute for Computational Civil Engi-
neering of Cracow University of Technology. They have done research on mechanics of thin-
walled shell structures (theory, numerical analysis and advanced computational techniques)
for years: Radwańska [34–36], Waszczyszyn, Pabisek, Pamin and Radwańska [45], Wosa-
tko and Radwańska [46], Bielski and Radwańska [12] and also have years of experience
in teaching the subject to students. One of the results of this activity is the book in Po-
lish “Shell structures. Theoretical foundations, analytical and numerical solutions” [37].
The strength of this book results from the fact that it includes not only the theoretical formu-
lations of fundamental problems but also examples of both analytical and numerical solutions
of selected problems for different types of shell structures.

The authors are deeply indebted to Professor Zenon Waszczyszyn for his invaluable con-
tribution to their education and knowledge. Under his guidance they got to know the theory
of plates and shells, computational mechanics applied in civil engineering and modern nu-
merical methods, in particular FEM. The authors are grateful to Professor Jerzy Pamin for
helpful remarks and discussions during the preparation of this paper. We also thank Professor
Waldemar Rachowicz and Doctor Rafał Tews for the access to their results included in Fig. 8
as a final application in Subsection 2.7.7

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