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What is Finite Element Analysis and how is it done?

September 17, 2020

By Bill McPhee and Scott Melvin

This mathematical problem-solving method just might save your next project

We’re seeing a growing demand for Finite Element Analysis (FEA) in the industry. But this process is not always well understood, nor is it always practiced effectively.

FEA is a method of solving problems using mathematical models. When we use FEA, we apply engineering principals and mathematics to an object for the purpose of examining its behavior due to external factors such as force or temperature. The goal is to predict things like the object’s strength, areas of stress, and deformation. In today’s world, this means building a virtual, three-dimensional (3D) model of the object in a computer program using the most accurate data available.

FEA Model / Mesh / Results Summary.

How is FEA done?

We specialize in FEA and have completed more FEA projects year over year for our clients. Our initial step when we perform a FEA is to acquire information about the object being studied, such as detailed drawings, fabrication specs for equipment, or architectural drawings. We model the subject in 3D using specialized software and then run a FEA analysis with inputs that simulate the real world conditions the equipment or infrastructure will be exposed to. We then spend time to understand the output, analyzing the design for areas that are overstressed and likely to fail. We provide recommendations to the client for reducing stresses and/or deformation to make the structure safe, functional, and efficient. This may include adjusting external factors such as structure arrangement, installation, and more.

Through Finite Element Analysis, we apply our engineering knowledge to efficiently evaluate the fitness of a design for the real world.

When might FEA be used?

We perform a lot of FEA studies for the oil and gas projects, but we also run them for a variety of structural and mechanical engineering projects, too. We’ve even performed studies for specialized techno-architecture projects like those jumbotron video screens in arenas. There are four situations where we find FEA useful:

  1. FEA to analyze something that can’t be analyzed easily with traditional methods—a design out of the norm: Components of machinery, like press framework and parts, fall into this category
  2. FEA to analyze structural and mechanical details for industrial buildings and infrastructure: Typically, we aren’t working on the building itself but on substructures or equipment, inside or outside the building. Structural and mechanical engineers sometimes ask us to validate design details and elements for strength and resiliency in extreme situations. For example, we’ve analyzed bases of light poles for extreme environmental loading conditions
  3. FEA to validate unusual geometry/orientation for a structure within a building or a large piece of equipment: Oftentimes, our structural engineers can easily validate the main structural elements of systems (such as a custom-designed overhead gantry system) and we assist them by running studies on complex joints and connections that are better suited for FEA analysis
  4. FEA to evaluate fitness for service work: We are called upon to use FEA to assess equipment   that wears down at industrial facilities over time. Our goal on these types of projects is to determine whether the equipment can be used safely and efficiently, and for how long.

FEA Plastic Mold Thermal Analysis.

So, what are some examples of effective implementation of FEA?

  • Failing equipment, infrastructure: A pulp and paper facility invested in a new large rotating piece of equipment but found it was failing after only six months, requiring costly and time-consuming repairs. We were called upon to use FEA to evaluate the equipment, see why the failure was taking place, and discern whether an installation error or design flaw was the culprit. Our analysis of FEA data showed that the internal structure was undersized in certain areas, creating some stress hotspots. This matched the area where the failures were occurring. Our results validated the issues being observed with the equipment and provided us with confidence that suggested repairs should fix the problem
  • Fitness for service work in industrial facilities: Crews do regular surveys in facilities such as onshore/offshore oil refineries to see if sections of pipe or storage vessels might be decaying over time. In the oil and gas industry, shutdowns are planned well in advance. Clients ask us to determine if equipment is safe to operate and for how long. If they are fit for service, they can wait to repair or replace the equipment at the next shutdown rather than repair it prematurely during an unplanned shutdown. Using FEA to assess the life cycle of their equipment, we can potentially save clients time and money on lost production and help them prevent an unsafe situation
  • Validating structural integrity: A new liquified natural gas (LNG) terminal was being built by one of our clients. Our structural team needed assurances on the validity of its design for the piles. An ordinary linear FEA indicated that the piles may be inadequate, potentially necessitating a redesign and additional manufacturing costs. We were able to show through a more in-depth non-linear analysis that the piles would be safe. Non-linear analysis accounted for material that might yield or flex but does not break or lose structural integrity.

FEA Lifting Beam Analysis.

What’s the benefit for our clients?

Our clients, whether internal or external, see a great benefit when we use FEA on their projects. Through FEA, we apply our engineering knowledge to efficiently evaluate the fitness of a design for the real world. The more our clients and engineering colleagues know about a structure’s performance, the better they can perform their role—whether it be planning a new installation, repair, or replacement of an asset.

While we’ve seen the demand for our FEA services grow in North America and the Caribbean, we believe it has potential application on projects anywhere on the globe. Ultimately, improving public safety, asset integrity, and project execution are the potential benefits of FEA that we believe make it a wise choice.

  • Bill McPhee

    As an associate and senior mechanical engineer, Bill is the client manager for one of our longest-standing industrial manufacturing clients. He’s also a team leader of industrial machine designers in our Dartmouth office.

    Contact Bill
  • Scott Melvin

    Scott has experience in mechanical engineering design for the manufacturing, industrial, automotive, mining, oil and gas, marine, and material handling sectors. His expertise includes machine design, pneumatics, hydraulics, piping, and controls.

    Contact Scott
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