in this month’s article I want to compare and contrast the types of user interface found in traditional Finite Element Analysis (FEA) programs and those found in CAD embedded FEA programs. The traditional FEA interfaces have evolved over a very long time and they have their roots in command line and early non-Windows graphical user interfaces. The embedded CAD programs, by contrast are built largely around the user interfaces developed in the parent CAD environment over the last 10 years or so.
Traditional FEA user interface
Because of its long-established roots and legacy, a typical FEA interface is usually very unique in its layout and workflow. Of the five or six major FEA programs I’ve worked with, there is virtually no commonality. The fundamental tasks are clearly present, defined by:
- geometry creation and manipulation
- material and physical property definition
- loads and boundary condition specification
- analysis set up and launch
- post processing
However, the route through the user interface to achieve those tasks is often very convoluted. This means that there is a very steep learning curve required to become proficient with a particular FEA user interface. The idiosyncrasies of each FEA solver are also tightly linked into this learning curve. A new user has two objectives; to learn how to drive the user interface and to learn the subtleties of the underlying FEA program. In my personal experience it takes around six months of active work in a particular product to become fluent and proficient. The products are so different, that mastery of one does not speed up the learning process for the next one! It is also difficult to remain current on more than one product at one time.
The traditional FEA interface is based around FEA data creation. Any geometry manipulation is purely secondary to the primary objective of creating a mesh. This means that the emphasis is on mesh manipulation, using any geometry as a basic starting point.
CAD embedded user interface
The CAD embedded FEA interface typically inherits menu structure and workflow from the main CAD program. This has the advantage for the user in that the main FEA tasks indicated previously are usually well laid out in a familiar environment. On the face of it, the route through these tasks to create an FEA analysis looks straightforward. However, there are quite a few variations on workflow between the different products, so again it is not always easy to transfer experience from one to another.
Having said that, it is certainly true that the learning curve with the embedded CAD products is very much shorter than the traditional FEA interfaces.
Pros and cons of the two approaches
I know many engineers who are advocates of one or other of the traditional FEA tools and mastering the idiosyncrasies of a particular tool is seen as a badge of merit! This experience is often hard won. But it can put an analyst in the position where the full power of the FEA solver can be accessed. The term ‘power user’ is a good description of someone who has made this level of commitment.
There is a frustration within this community when attempting to use the CAD embedded products as they simply do not allow access to more advanced aspects of the FEA solver. In some cases this limitation would prevent an analyst from being able to carry out the FEA work required to sufficient depth or demonstrated levels of accuracy.
On the other hand, many users will be happy using the basic FEA technology. For them the ease-of-use of the CAD embedded product will be far more attractive.
I think we are reaching a crossroads now. The CAD embedded FEA products must extend their depth if they wish to be taken seriously by the analyst community. On the other hand, the traditional FEA products must improve their user interface and workflow to avoid the major learning curve burden.
The traditional FEA interface is starting to undergo a makeover in many products, and it will be interesting to see if these will be able to eclipse the advantages of the embedded CAD environment. However, the products we see are a result of harsh market realities and progress will be dictated by that. Do the CAD companies want to cater for the relatively small number of advanced FEA users? Do the traditional FEA companies want to embrace more of the casual FEA users?