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# Finite element method

Introduction.

## 3 Finite Element Method—An Introduction

3.1 GENERAL
In the last few decades, revolution in the computer technology has led to development of
numerous computational techniques for solving many engineering problems. As mathematical
modelling became an integral part of analysis of engineering problems, a variety of numerical
methods such as finite difference method (FDM), finite element method (FEM), finite volume
method (FVM) and boundary element method (BEM) have been developed. Each of these
methods has its own merits and demerits depending on the problem to be solved. Out of the
available numerical techniques, FEM is one of the most flexible and versatile method for solving
engineering problems.
FEM is used widely for solving engineering problems in solid mechanics, heat transfer,
structural mechanics, aerospace, automobiles, biomechanics, fluid mechanics, etc. Development
of FEM for solution of practical engineering problems began with the advent of the digital
computers. FEM envisions the solution process as built up of many small interconnected sub-
regions or elements and gives a piecewise approximation to the problem concerned. Hence, most
engineering problems, which can be considered to be in a continuum, can be solved using FEM
by the piecewise approximation.

WHAT IS FEM?
In the most numerical methods, the unknown state variables are solved at a discrete number of points in
the problem domain considered to obtain approximate solutions. Process of dividing the problem domain
into an equivalent system of smaller domains or units and selecting a discrete number of points is called
discretization. Once a problem domain is discretized, solution can be obtained for each of the smaller
domains or units considered. Finally, such domain wise solutions can be combined together to obtain
solution for the entire domain. Hence, the solution is obtained from the approach known as ‘going from
part to whole’. Through this approach, analysis is simplified even though large amount of data may have
to be handled. Basic idea of FEM is developed from the above principle. Discrete points considered in the
domain are called nodes and the smaller domains or units considered are called elements. Elements and
nodes together constitute the mesh. Fineness of the mesh increases accuracy of the solution but at the cost
of computation time. On the other hand, the number of unknown parameters at each node, determines the
degrees of freedom.
FEM offers a way to solve wide variety of complex continuum problems by sub-dividing them into a
series of simpler interrelated problems. Essentially, it provides a consistent technique for modelling whole
system as assemblages of discrete parts or finite elements. The whole system may be a body of matter or a
region of space in which some phenomenon of interest is occurring. The degrees of freedom to which the
assemblage of elements represents the whole system usually depend on the number, size and type of
elements chosen for the representation. Sometimes it is possible to choose elements in such a way that
they lead to exact representation. However, this occurs in some special cases only. Most often, the choice
of an element is a matter of engineering judgment based on accumulated experience.
Fundamental idea of discretization in the finite element method stems from the physical procedures used
in the network analysis or framed structures. An engineering problem may be solved in one-dimensional,
two-dimensional or three-dimensional. Accordingly, the FEM discretization can also be in one-
dimensional, two-dimensional or three-dimensional Finite Element Method with Applications in
Engineering
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as shown in Figs. 3.1, 3.2 and 3.3. In mathematical modelling, the problem to be solved can be generally
represented by mathematical equations. As FEM includes discretization of the domain into elements, the
finite element solution gives a piecewise approximation to the governing mathematical equations.
3.3 HOW DOES FEM WORK?
In engineering problems of continuum in nature, the field variable (such as displacement, potential,
pressure, velocity and temperature) possesses infinitely many values because it is a continuous function of
generic point in the body or solution domain. Hence, the problem becomes one with an infinite number of
unknowns. The discretization procedure reduces the problem to one of a finite number of unknowns by
dividing the solution domain into elements. Then the unknown field variable is expressed in terms of
assumed approximating functions within each element. Approximating functions (or interpolating
functions) are defined in terms of values of the field variables at specified nodes or nodal points. Nodes
usually lie on the element boundaries (boundary nodes) where adjacent elements are considered to be
connected or inside the element as interior nodes.
Behavior of the concerned field variable is defined by the nodal values of the field variable and the
interpolation functions for the element within the elements. The nodal values of the field variable become
the new unknowns for the finite element representation of the problem. Once the nodal unknowns are
obtained, the interpolation functions define the field variable throughout the assemblage of elements of
the problem. Thus, solutions are formulated for individual elements before putting them together to
represent the entire problem. Nature of the solution and degree of accuracy depend on the size and
number of elements and the kind of interpolation function used. The interpolation functions are chosen
such that the field variable or its derivatives are continuous across adjoining element boundaries.
For example, Figure 3.1 shows the FEM discretization for an axially loaded bar member, which is
considered as a one-dimensional problem. The physical system includes the bar subjected to an axial load
g(x) and the problem to be solved is to determine the displacement u = u(x). The problem can be
mathematically represented by the following equation:
where AE represents the axial rigidity of the bar assumed to be constant. To obtain a solution using FEM,
the bar considered is discretized into elements using connecting nodes as shown in Figure 3.1.
Figure 3.1 Finite element discretization of a bar in one dimensional domain
Here, the unknown variable is the displacement u. The unknown variable is approximated by a set of
piecewise continuous functions (referred to as interpolation or shape function) assembled over the
elements at the nodes. Then the equations governing the behavior of the system are derived by assembling
the equations formulated for all the elements. Finally, the response of the system (here the bar deflection)
is obtained by solving the approximated system of equations. Finite Element Method with Applications in
Engineering
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Consider another example of a two-dimensional steady flow through a homogeneous isotropic earth dam
resting on an impermeable formation. The problem domain and FEM discretization is shown in Figure
3.2. The physical problem includes the ‘potential’ distribution in the domain of the dam due to the
differential heads at upstream and downstream and determination of the free surface position in the dam.
The upstream head value is known as h1(=10 m) and the downstream head value is known as h2 (=2 m).
The problem can be mathematically represented by the Laplace equation as
where h(x,y) is the head or ‘potential’. To get a solution, initially a free surface is assumed and the dam
domain including the free surface considered is discretized into triangular elements using connecting
nodes as shown in Figure 3.2. Here, the unknown variable is the head or ‘potential’ (h) at various nodes.
The unknown variable h is approximated by the two-dimensional interpolation or shape functions
assembled over the triangular elements at the nodes. Then, the equations governing the behavior of the
problem are derived by assembling the equations formulated for all the triangular elements. Finally, the
‘potential’ is obtained by solving the approximated system of equations after introducing the upstream
and downstream head values. As the location of free surface is not known a priori for this problem, the
final solution is obtained through an iterative procedure which is discussed later in the book.
For demonstration purpose, consider a problem dealing with steady-state three-dimensional heat
conduction in an isotropic homogeneous plate. The problem domain and three-dimensional FEM
discretization are shown in Figure 3.3. The domain is discretized using prism elements. The physical
problem includes the ‘temperature’ distribution in the plate due to the differential temperature from left to
right, with values T1 and T2. The problem can be represented mathematically by the Poisson equation as
Figure 3.2 Earth dam discretization using two-dimensional finite elements Finite Element Method with
Applications in Engineering
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Figure 3.3 Three-dimensional finite element discretization of a plate with prism elements
where T is the temperature, k is the thermal conductivity and Q is the heat source or sink. The domain is
discretized into prism elements using connecting nodes to obtain solution as shown in Figure 3.3. Here,
the unknown variable is the temperature at various nodes. The unknown variable ‘temperature’ is
approximated by the three-dimensional interpolation or shape functions assembled over the prism
elements at the nodes. Then, the equations governing the behavior of the problem are derived by
assembling equations formulated for all the prism elements of the problem. Finally, the ‘temperature’
distribution is obtained by solving the approximated system of equations after introducing the boundary
conditions.
Above mentioned problems indicate a broad perspective of working of FEM in the one-dimensional, two-
dimensional and three-dimensional problems. Further chapters will explain in detail how FEM is used in
the solution of engineering problems.
3.4 A BRIEF HISTORY OF FEM
Basic idea of FEM originated from analysis procedure used in framed structures like trusses, aircraft
structural analysis and flow network analysis. For the origin and development of FEM, there are different
perspectives from the viewpoint of a mathematician, a physicist and an engineer. From the
mathematician's perspective, solutions to boundary value problems of continuum mechanics were sought
by finding approximate upper and lower bounds for eigenvalues. The physicists were trying to solve
continuum mechanics problems by means of piecewise approximating functions. The engineers were
investigating methodologies for the solution of complex aero-elasticity problems such as stiffness of shell
type structures reinforced with ribs.
In the 1930s, when civil engineers dealt with truss analysis, they identified the solution procedure by
solving the component stresses and deflections as well as the overall strength of the system. They
recognized the truss as an assembly of members of rods whose force deflection characteristics can be
easily obtained. By combining these individual characteristics using laws of equilibrium and solving the
resulting system of equations, the unknown forces and deflections for the overall truss were obtained.
Efforts of mathematicians, physicists and engineers finally resulted in the development of basic ideas of
finite element method in 1940s.
Hrenikoff (1941) proposed the ‘frame work method’ for the solution of elasticity problems. On the other
hand, Courant (1943) presented an assemblage of piecewise polynomial interpolation over triangular
elements and the principle of minimum potential energy to solve torsion problems. Some mathematical
aspects related to eigenvalues were Finite Element Method with Applications in Engineering
41
developed for boundary value problems by Poyla (1954), Hersch (1955) and Weinberger (1958).
Foundation of finite element was laid by Argyris in 1955 through his book on ‘Energy Theorems and
Structural Analysis’. Turner et al. (1956) developed the stiffness matrices for truss, beam and other
elements for engineering analysis of structures.
For the first time in 1960, the terminology ‘Finite Element Method’ was used by Clough (1960) in his
paper on plane elasticity. In 1960s, a large number of papers appeared related to the applications and
developments of the finite element method. Engineers applied FEM for stress analysis, fluid flow
problems and heat transfer. A number of international conferences related to FEM were organized and the
method got established. The first book on FEM was published by Zienkiewicz and Cheung in 1967. With
the advent of digital computers and finding the suitability of FEM in fast computing for many engineering
problems, the method became very popular among scientists, engineers and mathematicians. By now, a
large number of research papers, proceedings of international conferences and short-term courses and
books have been published on the subject of FEM. Many software packages are also available to deal
with various types of engineering problems. As a result, FEM is the most acceptable and well-established
numerical method in engineering sciences.
3.5 FEM APPLICATIONS
FEM is now applicable to a wide range of engineering problems. Majority of applications of FEM are in
the realm of solid mechanics and fluid mechanics. In the last two decades, FEM has also been used in
electrical and electromagnetic problems as well as in bioengineering problems. Categories of problems
that can be solved using FEM can be divided into equilibrium, eigenvalue and transient problems. The
equilibrium problems are generally steady-state problems such as determination of stress and
displacement in solid mechanics-related problems, determination of temperature distribution in thermal
problems, estimation of potential, velocity and pressure in fluid mechanics problems. The eigenvalue
problems are also steady state in nature but include estimation of vibration and natural frequencies in
solids and fluids. In the transient problems, FEM is used in propagation problems of continuum
mechanics with respect to time. A brief description of the applications of FEM in various engineering
fields is given below.
Structural mechanics and aerospace engineering: FEM applications in equilibrium conditions include
analysis of beams, plates, shell structures, stress and torsion analysis of various structures. On the other
hand, eigenvalue analyses include stability of structures, viscoelastic damping, vibrations and natural
frequency analysis of structures. The transient or propagation analysis using FEM includes dynamic
response of structures to periodic loads, viscoelastic and thermo-elastic problems and stress wave
propagation.
Geotechnical engineering: FEM applications include stress analysis, slope stability analysis, soil
structure interactions, seepage of fluids in soils and rocks, analysis of dams, tunnels, bore holes,
propagation of stress waves and dynamic soil structure interaction.
Fluid mechanics, hydraulic and water resources engineering: FEM applications include solutions of
potential and viscous flow of fluids, steady and transient seepage in aquifers and porous media,
movement of fluids in containers, external and internal flow analysis, seiche of lakes, ocean and harbors,
salinity and pollution studies in surface and sub-surface water problems, sediment transport analysis and
water distribution networks.
Mechanical engineering: In mechanical engineering, FEM applications include steady and transient
thermal analysis in solids and fluids, stress analysis in solids, automotive design and analysis and
manufacturing process simulation. Finite Element Method with Applications in Engineering
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Nuclear engineering: FEM applications include steady and dynamic analysis of reactor containment
structures, thermo-viscoelastic analysis of reactor components, steady and transient temperature-
distribution analysis of reactors and related structures.
Electrical and electronics engineering: FEM applications include electrical network analysis,
electromagnetics, insulation design analysis in high-voltage equipment’s, thermo-sonic wire bond
analysis, dynamic analysis of motors, molding process analysis in encapsulation of integrated circuits and
heat analysis in electrical and electronic equipment.
Metallurgical, chemical and environmental engineering: In metallurgical engineering, FEM is used for
the metallurgical process simulation, molding and casting. In chemical engineering, FEM can be used in
the simulation of chemical processes, transport processes (including advection and diffusion) and
chemical reaction simulations. FEM is used in environmental engineering widely in the areas of surface
and sub-surface pollutant transport modelling, air pollution modelling, land-fill analysis and
environmental process simulation.
Meteorology and bioengineering: In the recent times, FEM is used in climate predictions, monsoon
prediction and wind predictions. FEM is also used in bioengineering for the simulation of various human
organs, blood circulation prediction and even total synthesis of human body.
3.6 MERITS AND DEMERITS OF FEM
As discussed above, FEM can be applied to almost all branches of engineering. The fact that FEM can be
used to solve a particular problem does not mean that it is the most ideal solution technique. To solve a
given problem, often several attractive numerical techniques are available. Each method has its own
merits and demerits. Depending on the problem, ‘the best’ method should be chosen by comparing the
merits and demerits of the method. Here, the merits and demerits of FEM are discussed.
Merits of FEM
Compared to other numerical methods some of the merits of FEM are as follows.
Modelling of complex geometries and irregular shapes are easier as varieties of finite elements are
available for discretization of domain.
Boundary conditions can be easily incorporated in FEM.
Different types of material properties can be easily accommodated in modelling from element to element
or even within an element.
Problems with heterogeneity, anisotropy, nonlinearity and time-dependency can be easily dealt with.
The systematic generality of FEM procedure makes it a powerful and versatile tool for a wide range of
problems.
FEM is simple, compact and result-oriented and hence widely popular among engineering community.
FEM can be easily coupled with computer-aided design (CAD) programs in various streams of
engineering.
An FEM model can be developed at different levels and it is possible to interpret the method in physical
terms. Finite Element Method with Applications in Engineering
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In FEM, it is relatively easy to control the accuracy by refining the mesh or using higher order elements.,
Availability of large number of computer software packages and literature makes FEM a versatile and
powerful numerical method.
Demerits of FEM
Some demerits of FEM are as follows.
Closed-form expressions in terms of problem parameters are not available in FEM. Numerical solution is
obtained at one time for a specific problem case only. Hence, unlike analytical solutions, there is no
Large amount of data is required as input for the mesh used in terms of nodal connectivity and other
parameters depending on the problem.
Generally, voluminous output data must be analyzed and interpreted.
Experience, good engineering judgment and understanding of the physical problems are required in FEM
modelling. Poor selection of element type or discretization may lead to faulty results.
3.7 CLOSING REMARKS
In this chapter, the finite element method is introduced. The basic idea in FEM ‘going from part to whole’
of the problem concerned is explained. Various aspects of FEM discretization are elaborated. Domain can
be discretized in one-, two- or three-dimensions. Various aspects of working of FEM in one-dimension,
two-dimensions and three-dimensions are explained with example problems. Further, history of FEM is
briefly reviewed by mentioning the important developments. FEM is now used in almost all branches of
engineering. The important applications of FEM in different branches of engineering are further described
briefly. As a numerical method, FEM has its own merits and demerits, which are briefly outlined. Various
FEM principles, methodologies and applications are elaborated in subsequent chapters.
EXERCISE PROBLEMS
With the help of appropriate domain discretization, governing equations and boundary conditions, explain
the one-dimensional application of FEM in heat conduction through cylindrical bar of 5 m length and 5
cm diameter. Use linear line elements for discretization.
With the help of appropriate domain discretization, governing equations and boundary conditions, explain
the two-dimensional application of FEM for deformation and stress distribution in a cantilever bar of 1 m
and 10 cm and 2 cm thickness and a load of 1 KN at the free end. Use triangular elements for
discretization.
With the help of appropriate domain discretization, governing equations and boundary conditions, explain
the three-dimensional application of FEM for potential flow in a cubic cavity of size 1 m. Use linear
prism elements.