Finite element analysis (FEA) is a computerized process that's designed to determine how solids, fluids, and gases respond to different types of stresses. An aerospace company might hire an FEA services firm to help it figure out which materials would be best for a new generation of lightweight airplanes, for example.
You might wonder, however, what's going on during these computerized processes. Let's take a look at what happens during an FEA run.
The Finite Part
The defining feature of this form of analysis is breaking a problem down into what are called finite elements. A finite element is a point in a 3-D mesh that simulates the real-world version of the materials in question. Oftentimes, simulations will combine several discrete components from a system to see how forces interact between them. However, the analysis of what happens ultimately boils down to how forces act on the finite elements.
Using established models from physics and mathematics, a technician will design a virtual environment intended to simulate the forces that a client is worried about. For example, a civil engineer might want to see how a certain type of steel beam will hold up to the weight of many vehicles before using it in a bridge. The FEA services company will create an environment that duplicates the real-world forces associated with these sorts of stresses.
Using a model of the bridge, the vehicles, and local conditions, the analyst will apply the forces in the virtual setting. The computer will then record how the forces appear to affect the finite elements. Eventually, the analysis run will produce a map of what's happening, showing the impact of forces like heat transfer, vibrations, structural fatigue, and oscillation.
Testing Long-Tail Risks
One of the big advantages of an FEA analysis is that it allows you to explore what might happen in long-tail-risk scenarios. For example, it's hard to create a real-world model of what would happen to a building during a Category 5 hurricane or magnitude 9.5 earthquake even if you can create detailed scale models. With FEA analysis, though, you can see how different components would perform under extreme stress. Similarly, you could test the effects of several decades' worth of different hypothetical events.
The work product of FEA is usually a heat map showing which finite elements suffered the greatest stresses. You can then look at the red zones on the map and decide how to mitigate those problems.