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New to Finite Element Analysis?

Editor’s Note: Tony Abbey teaches the NAFEMS FEA live FEA classes in the United States, Europe and Asia throughout the year, and teaches e-learning classes globally. Contact tony.abbey@nafems.org for details.

So you have got your first job in the industry, and one of your initial tasks is to start applying finite element analysis (FEA) to real projects. You might well have been told that you are now the company expert and are expected to get the expensive new tools working effectively!

How can you help yourself move forward in this daunting new role? Well, first off, don’t think of it as daunting. In fact, chances are you probably have had some initial exposure to FEA in college. These days, I see a lot of exciting project-based FEA training, backed up with self-teach video or other study aids to get just enough exposure to commercial analysis tools. Essential structural engineering theory is still there, but these days, linked to practical application, it is a lot more palatable. Engineers of my generation were subject to deep theory dives with a lot of the material having little practical use. FEA was a bone-dry subject.

Vendor Training

If your company’s budget allows it, one of the first options for becoming more FEA-savvy is to consider vendor-based training. This type of training also benefits from modern methods and technology — and importantly, a more integrated approach to the analysis environment.

I first taught vendor classes in the early 1990s using view foils for five days: Day 1 was geometry; Day 2 was meshing. If you missed Day 4 (analysis), then you were stuck because Day 5 was post-processing.

Things have moved on apace since then. Laptops, projectors and perhaps soon mobile apps allow users to get the touch and feel of the software much more directly, and to be able to experiment “off course.” Equally, tutors can push their students much harder, with more complex tasks. As the complexity of the software increases, this is really just as well.

I recommend approaching the vendor training with a shopping list of things that you want to explore and understand. This will mean that you can push yourself — and also the course trainers — harder.

Don’t just cruise through the training, doing the canned exercises as fast as possible. The objective is not to see who can finish the exercise first; instead, it is to make sure that you understand all the implications of the process you are following. Listen for any tips and tricks that the trainers might share. If the trainers can see that you are enthusiastic and really keen to make the most of the software, then they are also going to be encouraged, and you will get a lot more out of the course.

Making Your Way

It can be useful to delay the vendor-based training until you have had some experience with the software in the real world. While this means that you will struggle more at the start, in my experience it also means that you will know more about what questions to ask and what to demand of the software. Six months seems like a good time to spend on the job, before going to software training. By then, you should be better able to understand the context of the training.

So, after six months of being on your own, the vendor-based training starts to get you fluent and comfortable with the software. If this is going to be your full-time activity, then you need to set your sights on becoming a “power user.”

When I was a software trainer and also worked the help desk, it was often rather disappointing to see how ineffectively the average engineer was using the software. However, the key objective of good vendor-based training is to make you as productive as possible with usage of the software. Your ultimate goal should be to master the steps of CAD integration, mesh setup, problem setup, analysis running and post-processing of results — to the extent that you barely need to focus on how to “drive” the software.

It’s a bit analogous to driving a car: Once you get experience under your belt, you will be doing the basics so fluently and efficiently that you can concentrate on all the other important tasks, such as defensive driving, navigation, etc. You will be able to react well under different weather and traffic conditions to maximize the survivability of you and your passengers.

Now comes the next phase, which is to start to understand and deal with the problems the real world can throw at you.

Find Your Mentors

It is wise to seek out mentors who can help you, based on their skill and experience. If you are lucky, you will be surrounded by people of this caliber. If you are the new company expert, then perhaps not!

To find a mentor, look for someone who really wants to share the knowledge he or she possesses. This means using some common sense to decide on whom to approach. In the bad old days, we seemed to have a lot of FEA gurus who really wanted to keep all their knowledge tightly hugged to themselves. Thankfully, these days, that seems to be much rarer — but you need to steer clear of anyone who equates knowledge sharing with job threatening.

If you can’t find mentors immediately around you, look farther afield. It may be that, by joining an organization such as ASME, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) or the International Association for the Engineering Modelling, Analysis and Simulation Community (NAFEMS), you link up with people who are prepared to share their knowledge. There may be local groups where you can meet directly — or at least via email, Skype, etc.

Another mentoring opportunity is with your software help desk. The attitude here varies from company to company. In all cases, you need to avoid deluging the help desk with unnecessary questions. It is up to you to establish a good rapport by working hard at your end to debug problems as far as you can, and to assemble all the data and information needed to get the help desk up to speed. With a good software company, you should be able to gain respect and be able to ask a wider range of questions. The person at the other end of the line is only human, and if you present an intriguing problem or question — then interest may be piqued.

There are some very good online bulletin boards that specialize in engineering problems. Several of them have subsets that deal with FEA-related issues. The best of these attract resident experts who deal very authoritatively with a range of problems. If you take the time to pose the question accurately and in a well-written manner, you stand the best chance of getting a good response. A sloppy question will just be ignored or get a sloppy answer. Hopefully, you will get several opinions and a consensus. Be wary of a single answer, which might be inaccurate.

Searching online directly for your problem solution can often come up with useful papers, vendor and academic tutorials and other material. Again, be wary of the quality of the answers. The Internet does attract a lot of opinions, and some of them may be a little dubious.

Self-teaching and Experimentation

Again, self-teaching plays a vital role in developing FEA skills. There may be little scope to go off project or little time to explore some of the issues. However, you have lunchtimes, break times and any other personal time you want to add in there to explore what is in effect a virtual structural laboratory.

I have spent many hours of my own time trying to get to the bottom of complex solution types, material types, special elements and so on. The way to do it is by experimentation. Try to do what the manual says, but if the results don’t seem right, then start tinkering and putting in variations. Figuring out the answers to questions in this way is absolutely invaluable.

Continuation Training

My current role as a trainer for NAFEMS is to provide a link between the important academic FEA-based training an engineer will receive in college and the software-specific training required to acquire application skills.

The link, as I have described it, is that knowledge only comes with experience. The objective of these and similar courses is to share the key lessons from that experience. I have made many expensive mistakes using FEA, and have wasted a lot of resources in doing so. That is all part of the learning curve we all need to follow.

That said, describing some of the common traps and mistakes can help others be more effective and productive using FEA tools within a real-world context. Fundamental building blocks can be established with the use of basic theory and application examples. We don’t want overkill with the theory — rather, just the right amount to show what’s “under the hood.” Then we can see the implications for diagnostics, error checking, accuracy, etc.

I would recommend having a look at the NAFEMS website to see the range of live and eLearning-based classes. eLearning may appeal because of the wider range of subjects, the lower cost, and the option to carry out the training more at your own pace.

Follow a Career Plan

I recommend that you set yourself a career plan. One of the fundamental questions is: Do you want to be an engineer throughout your career, or do you see that as a step in the ladder to senior management, owning your own company or other ambitions? The answer to that question is going to dictate the depth and breadth of the subject that you want to achieve.

Regardless of the level of involvement you are looking for, it is a good idea to span as many areas of structural analysis and industry areas as is feasible. If you are working for a large company, this may mean moving from department to department across a range of products and analysis types. On the other hand, you may want to move across several smaller companies over a period of years to get that breadth of experience. In the current climate, layoffs, company closure and other factors may well dictate this for you. If it is any consolation, I can genuinely say that each time it happened to me, it did open up new application areas and broadened my engineering base.

Throughout your career, look for opportunities to work with the physical product that is going out of the door — and become involved with testing. This will all help to give you a more robust and well-rounded approach to engineering. If you are working in the FEA field, there is a distinct danger of becoming a little remote from reality. We are doing simulation of the real thing, not the real thing! A regular dose of reality keeps us all on our toes.

Tony Abbey is a consultant analyst with his own company, FETraining. He also works as training manager for NAFEMS, responsible for developing and implementing training classes, including a wide range of e-learning classes. Send e-mail about this article to DE-Editors@deskeng.com.

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About Tony Abbey

Tony Abbey is a consultant analyst with his own company, FETraining. He also works as training manager for NAFEMS, responsible for developing and implementing training classes, including e-learning classes. Send e-mail about this article to DE-Editors@deskeng.com.