finite element method
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finite element method[¦fī‚nīt ′el·ə·mənt ‚meth·əd]
Finite element method
A numerical analysis technique for obtaining approximate solutions to many types of engineering problems. The need for numerical methods arises from the fact that for most practical engineering problems analytical solutions do not exist. While the governing equations and boundary conditions can usually be written for these problems, difficulties introduced by either irregular geometry or other discontinuities render the problems intractable analytically. To obtain a solution, the engineer must make simplifying assumptions, reducing the problem to one that can be solved, or a numerical procedure must be used. In an analytic solution, the unknown quantity is given by a mathematical function valid at an infinite number of locations in the region under study, while numerical methods provide approximate values of the unknown quantity only at discrete points in the region. In the finite element method, the region of interest is divided up into numerous connected subregions or elements within which approximate functions (usually polynomials) are used to represent the unknown quantity.
The physical concept on which the finite element method is based has its origins in the theory of structures. The idea of building up a structure by fitting together a number of structural elements (see illustration) was used in the early truss and framework analysis approaches employed in the design of bridges and buildings in the early 1900s. By knowing the characteristics of individual structural elements and combining them, the governing equations for the entire structure could be obtained. This process produces a set of simultaneous algebraic equations. The limitation on the number of equations that could be solved posed a severe restriction on the analysis. The introduction of the digital computer has made possible the solution of the large-order systems of equations.
The finite element method is one of the most powerful approaches for approximate solutions to a wide range of problems in mathematical physics. The method has achieved acceptance in nearly every branch of engineering and is the preferred approach in structural mechanics and heat transfer. Its application has extended to soil mechanics, heat transfer, fluid flow, magnetic field calculations, and other areas.