Overview of FEA for newcomers
So you have got your first job in industry, and one of your initial tasks is to start applying finite element analysis (FEA) to real projects. You might well have even been told that you are now the company expert and are expected to get the expensive new tools working effectively!
How can you help yourself move forward in this daunting new role…
You will probably have had some exposure to FEA in college. These days I see a lot of exciting project based FEA training, backed up with self-teach video or other study aids to get just enough exposure to commercial analysis tools. Essential structural engineering theory is still there, but these days, linked to practical application it is a lot more palatable. Engineers of my generation were subject to deep theory dives with a lot of the material having little practical use. FEA was a bone-dry subject.
If your company’s budget allows it, one of the first options for becoming more effective is to consider vendor based training. Vendor based training also benefits from modern methods and technology and importantly, a more integrated approach to the analysis environment. I first taught vendor classes in the early-1990s using view foils for 5 days! Day 1 was geometry, day 2 was meshing. If you missed day 4 (analysis), then you were stuck because day 5 was post-processing. Things have moved on apace since then. Laptops, projectors and perhaps soon mobile apps allow users to get the touch and feel of the software much more directly and to be able to experiment ‘off course’. Tutors can equally push their students much harder with more complex tasks. As the complexity of the software increases this is really just as well.
I recommend approaching the vendor training with a shopping list of things that you want to explore and understand. This will mean that you can push yourself and also the course tutors harder. Don’t just cruise through the training, doing the canned exercises as fast as possible. The objective is not to see who can finish the exercise first; instead it is to make sure that you understand all the implications of the process you are following. Listen out for tips and tricks that the tutor is passing on. If the tutor can see that you are enthusiastic and really keen to make the most of the software, then he or she is also going to be encouraged and you will get a lot more out of the course.
It can be useful to delay the vendor based training until you have had some experience with the software in the real world. It does mean that you will struggle more at the start, but in my experience you will know more about what questions to ask and what to demand of the software at the same time. Six months seems like a good time to spend on the job, before going to software training. You will now understand the context of the training.
So the vendor based training starts to get you fluent and comfortable with the software. If this is going to be your full-time activity then you need to set your sights on becoming a ‘power user’. When I was a software trainer and also worked the helpdesk it was often rather disappointing to see how in ineffectively the average engineer was using the software.
However, the key objective of good vendor based training is to make you as productive as possible with usage of the software. Your ultimate goal should be to master the steps of CAD integration, mesh setup, problem setup, analysis running and post processing of results to the extent that you barely need to focus on how to ‘drive’ the software. The analogy is in fact rather like driving a car – you will be doing this so fluently and efficiently that you can concentrate on all the other important tasks, such as defensive driving, navigation etc. (no, not texting or phoning!). You will be able to react well under different weather and traffic conditions to maximize the survivability of you and your passengers.
Now comes the next phase, which is to start to understand and deal with the problems the real world can throw at you.
Find your Mentors
An important aspect of this is to seek out mentors who can help you, based on their skill and experience. If you are lucky you will be surrounded by people of this caliber. If you are the new company expert, then perhaps not! When finding a mentor you are looking for someone who really wants to share the knowledge they have. This means using some common sense to decide who to approach. In the bad old days we seemed to have a lot of FEA gurus who really wanted to keep all their knowledge tightly to themselves. Thankfully, these days that seems to be much rarer, but you need to be aware of anyone that considers knowledge sharing to be job threatening.
If you can’t find mentors immediately around you, then you need to look farther afield. It may be that by joining an organization such as ASME, AIAA or NAFEMS you link you up with people that are prepared to share their knowledge. There may be local groups where you can meet directly, however with email, Skype etc. communication is a lot easier.
Another mentoring opportunity is with your software helpdesk. The attitude here varies from company to company. In all cases you need to avoid deluging the helpdesk with unnecessary questions. It is up to you to establish a good rapport by working hard at your end to debug problems as far as you can and to assemble all the data and information needed to get the helpdesk up to speed. With a good software company you should be able to gain respect and be able to ask a wider range of questions. The guy at the other end of the line is only human and if you present an intriguing problem or question – then interest may be piqued!
There are some very good online bulletin boards which specialize in engineering problems. Several of them have subsets which deal with FEA related issues. The best of these attract resident experts who deal very authoritatively with a range of problems. If you take the time to pose the question accurately and in a well-written manner you stand the best chance of getting a good response. A sloppy question will just be ignored or get a sloppy answer. Hopefully, you will get several opinions and a consensus. Be wary of a single answer, which might be inaccurate.
Searching online directly for your problem solution can often come up with useful papers, vendor and academic tutorials and other material. Again be wary of the quality of the answers. The Internet does attract a lot of opinions and some of them may be a little dubious.
Self-teaching and experimentation
Self-teaching plays a vital role in developing FEA skills. There may be little scope to go off project or little time to explore some of the issues. However, you have lunchtimes, break times and any other personal time you want to add in there to explore what is in effect a virtual structural laboratory. I have spent many hours of my own time trying to get to the bottom of complex solution types, material types, and special elements and so on. The way to do it is by experimentation. Try to do what the manual says but if the results don’t seem right then start tinkering and putting in variations. Figuring out the answers to questions in this way is absolutely invaluable.
My current role as a trainer for NAFEMS is to provide a link between the important academic FEA based training an engineer will receive in college and the software specific training required to acquire application skills.
The link, as I have described it, is that knowledge that only comes with experience. The objective of these and similar courses is to share the key lessons from that experience. I have made many expensive mistakes using FEA and have wasted a lot of resource in doing so. That is all part of the learning curve we all need to follow. However describing some of the common traps and mistakes can help others be more effective and productive using FEA tools within a real world context. Fundamental building blocks can be established with use of basic theory and application examples. We don’t want overkill with the theory – but just the right amount to show what’s ‘under the hood’. Then we can see the implications for diagnostics, error checking, accuracy etc.
I would certainly recommend having a look at the NAFEMS website to see the range of live and e-learning based classes. E-learning may appeal because of the wider range of subjects, the lower-cost and the option to carry out the training more at your own pace.
I recommend that you set yourself a career plan. One of the fundamental questions is; do you want to be an engineer throughout your career, or do you see that as a step in the ladder to senior management, owning your own company or other ambitions. The answer to that question is going to dictate the depth and breadth of the subject that you want to achieve. However, whatever the level of involvement you are looking for it is a good idea to span as many areas of structural analysis and industry areas as is feasible. If you are working for a large company then this may mean moving from department to department a range of products and analysis types. On the other hand you may want to move across several smaller companies over a period of years to get that breadth of experience. In the current climate layoffs, company closure and other factors may well dictate this for you. If it is any consolation, I can genuinely say that each time it happened to me it did open up new application areas and broadened my engineering base.
Throughout your career, look for opportunities to work with the physical product that is going out of the door and to be involved with testing. This will all help to give you a more robust and well-rounded approach to engineering. If you are working in the FEA field there is a distinct danger of becoming a little remote from reality. We are doing simulation of the real thing, not the real thing! A regular dose of reality keeps us all on our toes.