Finite Element Analysis (FEA) technology has touched the development of an incredibly wide and diverse segment of products. Consider the range that is represented by these two examples, the planetary exploration robot Curiosity and the mountain bike you may be riding. Both were shaped by engineering analysis and simulation software. This breadth provides some perspective on what FEA software developers must consider in their product development and business plans.
In some products, like aircraft and autos, FEA is deeply entrenched in the product development process; engineers and management would be hard pressed to do without it. While in other product areas, it is still a relatively new engineering tool -- in some cases getting occasional use, and in others, an interesting technology still to be explored and maybe adopted sometime in the future. These two ends of the user spectrum, call them analyst and novice, highlight some important trends in FEA technology, markets, and business models.
Fundamental to serving these two very different groups lay several important technical components: computing power, effective visual display techniques, sophisticated numerical analysis, and advanced programming. (An article on FEA in Intel’s February 2013 Parallel Universe magazine gives a snapshot of this.) However, these resources are used to very different ends by FEA software developers. To serve the accomplished FEA analyst, these assets are being applied to attack more complicated engineering problems, bring out higher levels of real-world fidelity in their existing models, explore the design space more thoroughly, and extract optimal performance from a given design concept. The result is development of products and services in areas like optimization, multiphysics, 3d immersion, high performance and cloud computing. To attract those new to FEA or the occasional user, like designers, project engineers, or consultants, software companies harness these same technical components to make simulation technology more accessible. This may take the form of ease-of-use features like wizards and automated processes driven by the input of a few key technical parameters, pre-processors that use familiar CAD tools and menus for FEA model creation, animation and graphic visualization techniques that help highlight or pinpoint problem areas, innovative tools that keep the learning curve shallow while raising the level of analysis, data sharing features that allow for collaboration between the engineering generalist and the FEA analyst, and innovative ways of assisting during the analysis process, like context sensitive Help.
There are external events that can also affect engineering simulation software development. One major one is the introduction of new fabrication materials like shape-memory alloys (SMA’s) like Nitinol and composites like carbon-fiber-reinforced polymer (CFRP). Composites offer a particularly good example because they require changing long-established analysis practices. The preponderance of materials engineers deal with is treated as isotropic with well-behaved failure characteristics. However, to wring the most benefit from composites, their orthotropic or anisotropic characteristics need to be exploited. Simulation software is extremely useful here because it tames the complexity inherent in this task. Plus, analysis software offers tools for also dealing with their totally different progressive failure mechanism.
FEA software has been in use for several decades now. As these trends illustrate the technology is vibrant with many paths for future developments. One interesting new use, aside from real-world engineering problems, is for creating special effects in feature films – typically, to generate destruction scenes. The science fiction disaster film 2012 marked a notable introduction of the technology by The Motion Picture Company. More recently, their efforts in Prometheus have gained Oscar nominations for Outstanding Special Effects. FEA is providing film makers with another tool for more physically accurate renderings of dramatic scenes involving elements like impacts, extreme deformation, collisions, and collapsing buildings.