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18 minutes read
5 October 2021

Prerequisites for studying FEA

18 minutes read

It’s funny how these things go. It never occurred to me to write about prerequisites for studying FEA. And when Sesha asked about this in a recent email, I was really taken aback! It’s so easy to treat FEA as a “complete skill”, but like almost everything in life, it’s interdependent on other skills you should possess. Let’s ponder today what you should learn/understand before learning FEA:

First of all, you can use Finite Element Analysis in a lot of fields. I will be referencing the structural design field here since this is what I do. And as you will use FEA to design stuff… actual engineering design skills will be mandatory. But what are “engineering design skills”? Let’s dive deeper!

To begin, I feel I should point out that I will not mention things you definitely don’t need to know (while they are being taught everywhere anyway!). Yea… I’m looking at you: complex mathematics! I have already shared my thoughts on this here, so you can take a look if you are interested!

Today, let’s focus on what skills you will really need to start learning FEA!

The surgery was successful, but the patient died.

Let’s start like this:

Imagine that you are an inventor (it’s uncanny that spell checker tries to correct this into “investor”…). After a few years of work, you’ve created a super-cool-surgery-robot-5000TM. You know, a machine that is extremely accurate and is capable of internal surgery without cutting patient in half or whatever.

Naturally, you know the ins and outs of the machine, and you are the most knowledgeable about how it works, how accurate it is, and how to operate it and even fix it.

An investor calls you to ask for a presentation, promising a fat cheque. Without much thought, you pack the stuff and drive to his office…

… there you find a few guys in suits and an unconscious man laying on the floor. “So dear inventor, show us how it works, and operate on this dude lying on the floor here!” says the investor.

“But Mate! I’m an inventor, not a surgeon!”

… yea. FEA is like a super-cool-surgery-robot-5000TM

We live in a very complex world. And while I would love to know a lot, it’s impossible to know it all. Heck, it’s impossible to know 0.1% of it all! This is why it would be super hard to be an inventor and a surgeon at the same time. Both professions require a lifetime of learning to be good at either of them!

However, this is no excuse at all! In fact, you should know what you are good at, and what you can accomplish. And not just “try hard” to do stuff you have no idea about! So perhaps our inventor might stand a chance to do a super simple surgery (like a simple tooth removal) after sufficient training. But such “tooth removal training” would definitely be required! You can’t just “wing it” regardless of how much you know about super-cool-surgery-robot-5000TM!

On the other hand, I wouldn’t trust even the best surgeon if they were operating on me while using the super-cool-surgery-robot-5000TM for the first time in their life! It’s quite obvious that to use such a machine you need to be “trained” in using it. Not necessarily how it works precisely, but you definitely need to know how to use it properly!

So in order to successfully operate with the super-cool-surgery-robot-5000TM you need two things:

  • Medical knowledge! After all, you need to know what you want to operate and why!
  • Experience in using super-cool-surgery-robot-5000TM! Without this knowledge, you won’t be able to use the device properly! This means, that you won’t be able to properly use your medical knowledge in such a case!

As I wrote before, FEA is like the super-cool-surgery-robot-5000TM. It’s a wonderful and super complex tool. But in order to use it in design, you also (or maybe even dominantly!) need to be a “surgeon with proper medical knowledge”. And in our terms that would be “design engineering skills”. Let’s see what those are, what is useful, and what you should not waste your time on!

Design with style!

It’s actually funny, but it’s hard to pinpoint precisely what engineering design skills are! To me, it would mostly be about understanding how things work, and what to expect. Plus knowing some basic procedures of designing stuff.

But the above is far more of an “end result” rather than a “direction”. And it’s useless advice when it comes to where to start learning. Heck, how can you even learn to “understand how things work”?! So let’s try to boil it down to some key elements.

Strength of materials baby!

I know you cringed! No worries, “strength of materials” has the same effect on me. I well remember the professor who with his deep and sleepy voice went through one differential equation after another. It’s amazing how long a 1.5h lecture can be, eh?

But this is not the strength of the materials I have in mind! While universities did their best to punch us with the complex mathematics in this region (making the subject universally hated I would add!), this is not what is needed. What you need is to UNDERSTAND THE BASICS of the strength of materials. And as far as I know, you don’t need to know a single differential equation to get there!

Instead, you should understand several key concepts that will guide your decisions. And while I would love to make a complete list, I’m afraid that some other things that haven’t crossed my mind should be added (and if you happen to notice that something is missing – let me know in the comments below!). So, while I do not claim this is a complete list in any sense (to be honest, I’m not too sure if it is even possible to make a complete list!), below are a few concepts that I find really important.

Please note that I wrote “understanding” as a requirement.

I don’t care if you even know the equations that govern a given field, as long as you know how stuff will behave, and what the consequences of any given phenomenon are! Knowing all the equations doesn’t necessarily give you that understanding!

On the other hand, knowing some of the basic equations will really come in handy later on… you will see!

  • Stress and things associated with this: Often it’s the stress that will be of interest in FEA analysis. So you need to understand what that is. You also need to realize that it’s not all about Von Mises and that stress has components and even different “kinds” (you know like normal and shear stress). It’s also good to know, that “bending stress” is not different from the stress caused by tension. It just has different values on the cross-section! Also “torsion” produces shear stress, just as the shear force does (but again the distribution is different). Understanding “how stress works” is obviously very important when you start learning FEA!
  • Basics of cross-section properties: I mean, you should know what Moment of Inertia is. But again, I don’t care if you can calculate this value for any stupid shape using integrations… I care if you *understand* what this means in practical terms. You will never have to calculate MoI of anything – there are software programs that will do it for you, although I admit that I remember a few equations (rectangle mostly) that come in handy from time to time when I do hand calculations. Of course, there is also Section Modulus, the radius of gyration, and stuff like that. Again, it’s the understanding of what those mean that is important. And if you want to see what I mean by understanding, you can read an article I did about Moment of Inertia – it explains what it means, but also shows what I mean when I say *understand*.
  • Rigidity: Ach, this is a tricky one. It’s a more “high level” thing, but it’s super important. While the cross-section things are more concrete, this is a rather abstract thing. I hated when teachers told me that this is because of structural rigidity, since back then, to me, that meant nothing. And now I see what I didn’t understand. But it’s not too easy to describe in one go! I guess you start with Hooke’s law (and a cat!), and you end up with Gummy Bears (that is one of my favorite engineering “stories” – you can read it in my free 10x FEA course). I guess the best I can describe this part is “to understand how deformations of some elements impact outcomes that you get for other elements”. I suspect this is not a simple thing, but it’s there and has many faces. One of which is knowing which direction a thing is supported, and in which direction it isn’t for instance.
  • Material properties: I admit that this is a “borderline” strength of materials. However, I put it here, simply because I’m not sure where else to put this in! Obviously, you should know what the Young’s Modulus and Poisson Ratio is. But also, how yielding works (you can always read this). But each material has its “quirks”. Steel yields nicely with a plastic plateau, but stainless steel for instance, while it yields far more, also strengthens “as it goes”, etc. You don’t have to understand “all” materials – but you should understand the ones you use! This alsorequires you to understand the concept of strain as well!

I’m pretty sure that this is not the end of the list, but I hope I covered some useful things and got you thinking. I’m the first to admit, that I didn’t understand ALL of that when I first started. It came in time. However, you really should have a strong base… otherwise, there will be nothing you will be able to build understanding on!

Static calculations

Just when you thought this couldn’t get any worse, eh? Well, maybe it’s not worse, I definitely favored static design over the strength of materials in University! But it wasn’t a terribly practical subject, to be honest. I remember that my professor (and awesome guy BTW!) stood in front of us at the beginning of the lecture and said: “I know that I’m a theoretician, and to all of you, future designers, it may seem stupid and unneeded! But these theoretical studies of mine, allowed my wife and I to travel all over the world to various scientific conferences, and I really enjoyed that!”. I was really taken aback by that, but now, years later I’m not even surprised!

Static calculations are more or less like the strength of materials. You don’t need the fancy statically indeterminate solution schemes to go along with your design. Your computer will be more than happy to solve those for you! However, you need to know your way around the basics… so you can more or less control what the computer is doing!

Funny enough, there isn’t much I can list here since static calculations are a super focused thing!

  • Just remember the basics! If you can solve a cantilever and a simply supported beam (maybe a beam with fixed ends as well) when they are loaded with 1-2 forces or a distributed load… you’re a boss! Seriously! I rarely go beyond such schematics when I verify FEA. To be honest, if there are any more loads I would simply launch RFEM and model the problem. It would be quicker! But knowing how to solve these simple schematics also gives you the knowledge on how stuff should behave. Where to expect bending moments (and resulting stresses) to be higher. On which side of the cross-section will compression be present, and things like that! This is very important knowledge, so refresh the “simple beam skills” if you need them! It will come in handy – trust me!
  • Pay attention to supports! I think that boundary conditions fit way better here than in the strength of materials (although this might be a “common thing” between those fields). Static teaches you that it’s not the same if you have a pinned or fixed support, sliding or not sliding, etc.! FEA won’t teach you this – you will have to know it upfront. So definitely pay attention to supports. But this is partially a “structural” skill too, and I will be back to this point later on!
  • I’m not sure if the skill of seeing how the forces “travel” through your model comes from understanding how to do simple statics by hand. This is quite likely! But if this is a separate skill, I somehow picked it up along the way… I have no idea how I learned it. But it will be needed. What I’m talking about here is the skill to realize that if “this beam stands on that beam, then the reaction force from this beam, will be an active load on the supporting beam”. Nothing fancy of course, but it’s important.

… and that is it! I had like 3 or 4 semesters of static design at university! They taught me at least several different methods of solving statically indeterminate systems (including some graphical methods) etc. I don’t think I ever used them in any meaningful way, but perhaps learning that made me more “aware” of how the structures behave (I don’t think that is the case, but I’m open to the possibility!).

Perhaps some imagination is useful here. You know, the type that allows you to imagine, how to divide your system into the set of cantilevers and beams you can easily calculate by hand if needed. But I think it just “comes” as a natural result of having the skills I listed above!

Structural design skills

This is the last topic I want to touch on in the article. While the strength of materials and static calculations could be seen as “theoretical” due to how they are taught, structural design skills are clearly practical in nature. This is the last step that you will need to be successful at FEA I think!

I’ve heard many times, people saying: “you should not start to solve an FEA problem if you would not be able to solve it by hand”. In some simple cases, that would mean that you need to have practical skills in the strength of materials and static (that I already described). But in the real world, people associate this with design skills way more often.

While I’m not sure if I would be so absolute in my view, knowing how to design stuff is definitely useful. And funny enough, it is more important at the beginning! Mostly, because if you know how to use FEA in one “field” you can try to extrapolate your skills to other fields. But starting really does require design skills… simply to avoid problems! Not to mention that design skills in one field, can be more or less translated to design skills in another field. After all, while rules and codes can be different, the underlying physics is the same everywhere!

So let’s take a look at what should be useful:

  • You know what to expect! Regardless if hand calculations are “super accurate” or “just an approximation used in design” if you know how to design something by hand you know how it will fail! I should point out, that as always, to me “knowing how to design stuff” is way more than just the ability to follow code/standard/book procedure and obtain the outcome. It’s also *understanding* what the procedure verifies and why! If you have such a skill, every time you look at the problem, you instantly know, that in this case, you need to pay attention to X, Y, and Z… because the hand procedure would verify this! This means, that you will never be surprised by buckling, fatigue, or whatever… Sadly, without this knowledge, you can do linear FEA analysis, obtain stresses, and simply assume that “all is correct” while ignoring a LOT of potential problems you are unaware of!
  • You know how stuff is done! A lot of things in the world are already solved. And when you learn structural design, you also learn about typical solutions! This is why experienced engineers would tell you that “the design is wrong… it just looks weird!”. Having the intuition of how things should look, allows you to properly predict correct solutions. And this will lead to the fact, that you know what to model in FEA, and eventually how to strengthen things effectively! Not to mention avoiding silly problems with super simple typical solutions (instead of spending a lot of time analyzing those problems!).
  • You know what can and cannot be done! It’s often the case, that FEA (especially nonlinear accurate approach) will deliver a more optimized design than hand calculations (that often are conservative estimates). But if you have any real design experience, you will instantly know what can and cannot be done. This is a super neat trick, as you can save a lot of time simply ignoring ideas that would not be possible anyway!
  • Boundary conditions once more! It’s not only important that you understand that there is a difference between pinned and rigid connection. That would be the “static design skill”. You also have to be able to recognize if a given connection will be pinned, or rigid, or perhaps sliding, etc. This is absolutely not a trivial skill to have, and I very often get questions like this from subscribers. If you have the time, modeling connections in FEA will definitely show you how they will behave (if you know how to interpret the outcomes), but often there just isn’t enough time and in such situations the “structural boundary conditions understanding” skill kicks in! This can easily be expanded into “support rigidity, loading conditions, etc.”. Understanding all of that is super important for sure!
  • Understanding outcomes! I feel that there is more, but this will be the last thing I will mention here! If you know how to design stuff, you also know what outcomes to expect! And this gives you a chance to interpret the outcomes you receive from FEA! Not to mention spotting stupid answers that come from some errors you may have made during model setup!

The only problem with design skills is, that it’s not simple to pick them up! You could of course read some books (or even codes/standards, if you think you are that tough!). But this will just give you shallow knowledge in most cases (it was definitely like that in my case). It takes a dedicated teacher or a few years of experience (or both!) to *understand* how things work! And as I wrote, it’s not only about you memorizing the needed equations! In fact, what you need is an understanding of how things work.

If you want to check what I mean by this, I did a post some time ago about hand calculations of a given case, based on the code procedure. You can read about it here. Please note how I explain stuff and “what is what, and why” in the equations. This is the understanding that I’m talking about! There are also things “I just knew”, like the fact that we were expecting problems with buckling, etc. This also comes as “part” of the knowledge on how to design things!

Final thoughts

This all seems like a LOT right? Heck, maybe this even is a lot! But, please… don’t get discouraged!

The truth is, that the above skills are needed if you want to be a good design engineer anyway. In some sense, they are even FEA independent. So even if you feel that you don’t want to learn FEA after reading this… if you still want to have a career as a design engineer… you still need to know all this!

But there is also a glimmer of light. You don’t have to know everything at the start! I know I didn’t! Some things just take time to sink in, I observe that the more I learn, the more I understand things I used to learn in the past. It all somehow connects in your head, but time is definitely a factor as well!

So, don’t write yourself off too easily! Just always be curious and question everything (within reason of course!). It’s not the lack of knowledge that is the biggest problem. What will damage you the most is not learning anymore!

Even if you don’t know some of these things, you can still start doing FEA, and even have fun with it! Just remember, that you have gaps in your knowledge, and be careful… while working hard to fill those gaps with good practical knowledge! If you constantly learn – there is nothing you cannot accomplish!

I really hope that I showed you something useful here. If you don’t agree, or you would add or remove something from the list above, please voice your opinion in the comments below. I always read them, reply to them, and I’m happy to discuss this all in a very open manner. In short, I really care about engineering as art, propagating practical FEA knowledge, and simply helping other engineers!

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Author: Łukasz Skotny Ph.D.

I have over 10 years of practical FEA experience (I'm running my own Engineering Consultancy), and I've been an academic teacher for a decade. Here, I gladly share my engineering knowledge through courses, and on the blog!

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Comments (4)

Grega Jerin - 2021-10-05 13:16:15

Bravo Łukasz for great post.
I come from mechanical engineering side and I do a lot of design every day in my own company. I can't say that I'm an expert in FEM, because I have to do a lot of other things too, that the machines I design, work properly.
But everything is a strange mix of engineering knowledge and I think that the thing that is mostly responsible for creating people that are experts on their fields, is to have a great environment (industry, times with stable economic growth, etc.) that needs solving problems. That is how that strange fuzzy side of engineering is learned.
Keep up the great work and nice work done on renewing the site.

Grega

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Łukasz Skotny Ph.D. - 2021-10-05 13:22:58

Hey Grega!

That is a very interesting point. Indeed, if you work in a "growing industry" in "good economic times" there is plenty of opportunities to learn, and maybe even some money for tests, etc. I never paid attention to this. But this may also sound an excuse (i.e. I'm not learning because times are rough...) so I feel obliged to say that I started my first company literally as the 2008 crisis was starting :)

Still, a good environment makes it so much easier to operate and learn and grow - I totally agree here.

Ang in the end, thank you - I'm really happy that you like the new design!
Ł

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Grega Jerin - 2021-10-06 11:28:11

Not to be misunderstood, recession is no exuse not to learn. But if you don't have a stable environment, then my opinion is that there is signifcantlly less transfer of "practical" knowledge. That is that part which you are describing that you don't know how exactly you learned. This is done if there are teams of experts and not so much experts working togehter on problems that have enough money behind. One such (maybe extreme) example is US space programe in 60s. After that there was not much progress... Until last decade.
Everything can be done and there are exceptions, but on average this part is lacking in "bad" times. There is also a lot of work needed and time to invest, and younger generations don't want ot do this if there is no result to be seen in the future. Who could blame them?
I also like to read books from people that worked on some of the greatest projects in history. From my point of mechanical engineering those are Joseph Sutter (Boeing 747), Kelly Johnson (Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works), William Francis Gibbs (US United States), etc. This situation is usually confirmed in the stories there...

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Łukasz Skotny Ph.D. - 2021-10-06 14:08:09

Hey Grega!

Absolutely - I know you haven't suggested that!

Well, I guess that it would be great to work with a well-motivated and well-founded team of experts on solving some of the difficult technical problems - I do agree, and I can easily imagine why this would lead to a lot of knowledge transfer... who knows, maybe I will have a chance to do so in my lifetime - we will see :)

But you also touched on an important topic, and that is, "if you don't see benefits in the future (seeing older folks) you won't put the effort". That part is very interesting - I'm not sure what I think about this one, but I will definitely ponder this, as there is something there for sure! Perhaps "hard work" is "inherited" as means of getting out of poverty (which would be a bit the "opposite"), but learning and hard work doesn't necessarily lead to the same outcomes... very interesting point for sure!

All the best!
Ł

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