Everywhere we turn - journal articles, trade magazines, blogs, etc., we see how one company or another has benefitted by using engineering simulation in their development process. Some examples of engineering simulation are finite element analysis (FEA), computational fluid dynamics analysis (CFD), and electromagnetic analysis (EM). Some people refer to this field, in general, as computer aided engineering (CAE). Whatever contraction you prefer, simulating product performance in the virtual world has proven to be an invaluable asset to many organizations. The specific topic of this article is finite element analysis, but most of the concepts below can apply to your favorite flavor of simulation - simply replace "FEA" with your acronym of choice.
Embraced many years ago by large Fortune 500 industrial companies, finite element analysis is now an afterthought to them, and FEA requirements are being passed down to their suppliers. On the flip side, the adoption of simulation is sometimes viewed skeptically by many small to medium-sized businesses. There are many reasons for this view, some valid and some not. One I have heard many times is that managers don't really know how to properly implement finite element analysis in their development process and are worried that it will fall flat on its face. If not executed correctly, it likely will. The good news is that you are reading this article, so it won't happen to you!
Successful deployment of FEA requires a commitment. Purchasing software and handing it to the person with the lightest workload on their plate to "play around with" is a sure path to disappointment. Do companies do this with their manufacturing processes? Of course not! So why do they think it will work with simulation?
As a manager, make a commitment and define a "goal." Something like: "I believe FEA will help my organization build better and more reliable products, and I will take the steps necessary to make this happen." This step is the hardest, and the rest follow naturally from here.
Partnering with an Experienced Engineering Simulation Consultant
First, it will be most helpful to find a partner - someone who has been through this process before. It could be someone within the organization, or more likely, an outside consultant who specializes in finite element analysis. Let the FEA consultant know what you want to accomplish and see if they have had prior experience guiding other companies through the implementation process and are willing to help you. Some are comfortable partnering with you in this way, while others are purely transactional. Choose wisely - a competent FEA consulting firm will be able to help you at all stages of your implementation process and beyond. This is not a situation where you should allow purchasing to just go with the lowest bidder - you are choosing a trusted business advisor, not a paper clip supplier.
Start with a pilot project. This is the test to see if FEA can really help you, and how much. Ideally, it will be a relatively straightforward project which can be completed quickly, and where the benefits of FEA are easy to quantify. You can skip this step if you have already convinced yourself and your management of the value of FEA (or if your competitors are using its benefits to eat your lunch in the marketplace).
Usually, this first project will be performed by the FEA consulting firm you have chosen to partner with. If you have chosen well, they will be able to successfully complete the project and you will be able to determine whether finite element analysis, when performed properly, can benefit your organization. If you try to do it on your own, and things don't work out, you will always be left with the question - "Is FEA not the right answer for us, or did we just not do things right?"
At the end of the project, you may realize that performing FEA within your own organization might not be the best approach. Perhaps you don't have the right personnel in place, or you don't develop new products frequently enough to warrant the investment. If this is the case, you can partner with the consultant on an as-needed basis, having already developed what is hopefully a good working relationship. If not, find another FEA consultant.
Choosing FEA Software
After the pilot project, you are ready to take the next step of choosing the individuals to spearhead the FEA effort within your organization. It's generally best to start with a small, focused group. Pick the best and brightest - they will enjoy the challenge and are most likely to succeed. Make sure they have an open mind and can evangelize their success to others. This is not the project you want to assign to people who are computer-phobic, even if they are your best engineers.
The next step is to choose your software. This is a subject unto itself, and is dependent on what type of FEA you need to perform. However, some of the basic guidelines for software selection are:
Remember that the cost of the software is a relatively small piece of the total implementation cost - don't let this drive the selection process. Having inexpensive software laying around unused does nothing to improve the product development process. If you are not familiar with simulation software, get help from your FEA consultant. They may use a variety of software and will be able to help you choose what is best for your needs. Don't waste time comparing checklists of capabilities - this is usually a worthless exercise and is not an indicator of how well the features perform or how easy they are to implement. Consider leasing the software for a short time period if you have any doubts. If it doesn't work out, try another.
Training Your Staff
Once the software is acquired, it is important to get the best training available. Any FEA software worth purchasing requires proper training in order to maximize user efficiency and avoid costly mistakes. Contrary to the typical sales pitch, "ease of use" does not automatically translate into "accurate results." At this point, you have already put in considerable effort, time and money into implementing finite element analysis - the training phase is not the time to skimp on resources. The time spent in a training class will go a long way towards making engineers productive with the software and will minimize the inevitable frustration with learning a new tool.
It's best to use the pilot project, or other typical component you design, as part of a customized training program to make the training relevant to your engineers. If you are analyzing heat exchangers and the training workshops employ generic flat plates or beams, the training won't be as valuable. Consider training your staff not only on how to use the software, but on some of the underlying theoretical and numerical concepts of the type of simulation you want to perform. It really helps to have some idea of what is going on under the hood of FEA software in order to better evaluate inherent assumptions and limitations. A reliable FEA consulting partner should be able to provide this type of customized training.
Applying Finite Element Analysis to Other Projects
At this point, you are ready to tackle some real projects. Ideally, these will be at the early design stage, where simulation is most beneficial. Try to identify some relatively straightforward applications initially - remember that you are just learning. Don't forget to use your FEA consulting firm as a resource and mentor. This will help you get a jump-start on the process and start you in the right direction. Once you begin using FEA, it is important to closely monitor progress, identify stumbling blocks, and provide assistance and additional resources or training as needed. This is the time to step up and use your management skills to keep things on track, as you do for everything else.
Once you have a couple of projects under your belt, you can add refinement and begin developing standardized processes, best practices, and templates for analyzing similar components. Most importantly, work to develop QA methods to verify that simulation results are valid - these can be hand calculations, standardized test processes, or results of similar analyses. This is a critical component of the finite element analysis process. Without QA in place, modeling and input errors can lead to invalid conclusions and misguided designs. For initial projects, which are scrutinized carefully by many skeptics, this is less of an issue. However, as FEA becomes ubiquitous in the organization, the level of scrutiny tends to decrease, opening the door for problems. Keep that door closed.
As part of the process for determining how to validate your results, you will need to determine the level of accuracy you require from your analysis. Initially it may be just rough, comparative results to help guide your design in one direction or another. As you build confidence and experience, you can use the results with true predictive capability to minimize, or even eliminate, final product testing. You can dial it up or down, depending on the stage of the design, type of product being designed, and as external requirements and resources dictate. As you increase your level of sophistication with FEA, use your FEA consultant as a resource to help point you in the right direction. If they are experts, they have been there before and can help you avoid some of the pitfalls.
At this point, you will have successfully implemented finite element analysis into your organization. After congratulating yourself, take the next steps to get more people trained, expand FEA to more product lines, and reap all the benefits that simulation has to offer!
About the Author
Dr. Nicholas M. Veikos is responsible for managing the operations of the 30-year-old simulation-focused engineering consulting firm CAE Associates. Prior to taking on this role in 2000, he was responsible for managing all FEA consulting activities at the firm. He has over 30 years of experience performing and supervising engineering analysis in a wide variety of engineering disciplines, for over 150 different clients. During this time, Nick developed a number of specialty-purpose finite element codes, devised automated analysis methodologies to produce optimal solutions, and authored over 250 client reports. His particular areas of technical expertise include finite element theory, structural dynamics, random vibrations, structural nonlinearities, and rotordynamics. Nick continues to play a major advisory role for consulting projects related to these areas and to teach classes in these disciplines. For more information on CAE Associates, please visit www.caeai.com.