Algor's Williams (above) presents a Web-based demonstration of the developer's Mechanical Event Simulation software. Conducting FEA classes over the Web means students can participate anywhere without being away from their families during off hours. Train in at least twos, suggests some instructors. Team members can reinforce each other's learning experience.

Companies always wrestle with whether or not to train people offsite for CAD or FEA work. It takes creative individuals out of the office, managers argue, so their productivity is lost for a short time, and costs can be significant. The good news is that costs come back to the company in about half a year, (Machine Design, Jan 10, 2002, p. 96) and users feel more competent so they perform with new interest.

Once a company clears the cost hurdle, the question becomes: Who should get training and how much? Of course, the answer is: It depends. "The type of training depends on the user's background and previous experience," says Robert Williams, product manager for Algor Inc., Pittsburgh (www.algor.com).

"If users are learning their first FEA program or refreshing general FEA knowledge, then introductory courses are appropriate. They provide an overview of finite-element theory, concepts, and terminology. These courses provide guidance on getting started and explain how to apply FEA to the engineer's work," says Williams.

Instructors prepare an agenda and material geared toward how attendees are likely to use the software. It's not necessary for attendees to learn everything the software can do, just what's needed to start working on their own. "Our company, for instance, provides two introductory courses," says Williams. "One focuses on working with CAD models, such as the seamless transfer of geometry to the FEA software, suppressing features not essential for analysis, and meshing as well as analysis and results evaluation, presentation, and reporting. The second course covers topics such as choosing the right analysis type for the task, theory behind different mesh elements, different solvers that are available, and analysis options."

To get the most out of technical training, Williams suggests the following:

Load the software and study a few tutorials. Training courses are neither software demos nor an explanation of every feature, so it's a good idea to install the software before class and take a look at it. "Examining menus, help tools, and other parts of the user interface familiarizes students with the look and feel of the program," says Williams. Additionally, users should work through available tutorials. "It's useful to perform some self-study, such as participating in Web-based courses, because it gives students a sense of what they will see in the class so the training value can be more fully realized."

Expect an introductory class to span two to three days. Such a course breaks down into becoming familiar with the software, running sample problems, and focusing on what users will be doing with the software on the job.

Experienced FEA users who would like to learn a different package or add new capabilities need training more tailored to their specific needs. Training for a specialized capability is good for FEA users who are broadening their experience. For example, users experienced with static stress analysis might want to perform dynamic analyses, so a course on dynamic simulations would help.

"A few customers take a more active role in their training," says Williams. "Instead of using our standard curriculum, they send in applications or models ahead of time so training can be tailored to what they do."

Train in teams. Ideally, at least two people from the same company should attend training together. That way, both have someone with whom they can discuss what was learned. They can also help each other applying the new techniques back on the job.

Immediately apply what you learn. After the initial course, users should return to the job and apply what they've learned to improve retention.

Don't ignore the Web's training potential. The Internet makes interactive training available through the computer. "My company, for example, provides a Web site devoted to training over the Internet, www.eTechLearning .com," says Williams. "Through Internet-based sessions, engineers can 'brush up' on FEA principles and Algor software without travel costs or time outside the office. Engineers can participate in free, one-hour software demonstrations through Webcasts, along with Web courses and customized software demonstrations and training."

Additional Internet-based training courses focus on specific areas that might be helpful to reinforce learning after an introductory course. Williams says available FEA Web courses from his company include modeling and meshing, MEMS, multiphysics, piping design and analysis, productivity tools for engineers, and evaluating and presenting results.

Training never ends. "When users find their needs change, they should find out what additional courses and services can make them more efficient," he adds. As users continue working with FEA, there is always room to keep learning new techniques and tools.

In addition, there is a great deal of sharing and mentoring in user forums. "Training courses teach software in terms of what keys to press and buttons to push," says Williams. "User forums let other users provide guidance on applying the software to a wider variety of applications," he adds.

Training should not carry negative connotations, such as implying something is lacking in the user's overall abilities or that they don't know enough to perform their job without help, suggests Williams. "In addition, one class cannot teach everything. Training should be viewed as an essential part of continuing education and a wise investment."




Best practices for training

To get the most out of training, Algor's Williams suggests these best practices:

  • Install the software, examine the interface features to get an initial feel and impression, and work on some tutorials.
  • Take an introductory or overview training course.
  • Take advantage of continuing education programs including distance learning Web Courses, Webcasts, and customized training.
  • Ideally, at least two coworkers should take a training course together. That way, students can discuss what they learned and help each other when applying the concepts.
  • If someone at your company already knows FEA or the software, let them act as a mentor.