In the past, choosing whether or not to use FEA software could be a tough decision. Engineering departments raised legitimate objections such as steep learning curves, expensive hardware, and the challenge of working with CAD models. Some companies could not or did not want to buy both CAD and FEA software at the same time. They relied instead on traditional engineering methods and never really took to computer-aided engineering.

Today, practically all of those objections to FEA are gone. For instance:

  • Analysis software is easier to use than ever before, thanks to Windows-based interfaces that provide wizards, convenient and extensive documentation, error checking, and other ease-of-use features.
  • Computer power to run complex analyses has never been so affordable.
  • Support for CAD is a given, thanks to open systems and industry-standard files. This lets users work directly on CAD models they have shaped instead of needing to recreate the model geometry in the analysis software.

These developments have made FEA useful even to nontraditional users such as doctors, university researchers, and production managers. Getting started with FEA software is easy as well. If you have CAD, you probably already have access to at least a limited version of FEA.

Other useful developments involve software codistribution agreements between CAD and FEA vendors. For example, some CAD vendors are bundling DesignCheck, a version of our software for first-pass stress analysis, with their CAD programs.

FEA lets engineers digitally test and predict real-world behavior of designs. Having FEA in a CAD package makes it easier to discover their combined power and value. Once users directly experience the benefits of even a limited version of FEA, they will undoubtedly want to expand their tools and perform more advanced analyses. md

Models created in any widely used CAD package can be analyzed in FEA software to almost test and predict real-world behavior. G3 Genuine Guide Gear Inc., a maker of backcountry ski and safety equipment, modeled this H-body component of a ski binding in SolidWorks and performed linear-static-stress analysis in Algor software.

Engineers at G3 performed linear-static-stress analyses of all components of its Targa Ascent ski binding to lower weight and increase strength. The company says it’s the lightest (1,400-gm) binding of its kind and has received several ski industry awards.

A shopping guide for FEA

After users sample the analysis capabilities that come with CAD packages and realize the benefits of FEA, they often want more analysis tools. A few factors to consider include:

Technical capabilities: Most analyses call for at least linear-static stress, linear dynamics, or heat transfer. Most leading simulation-software vendors provide these analysis capabilities with nearly identical features. Make a list of capabilities, features, or factors that are important to the type of work you do before testing software. Is it best to buy the lowest-priced software for only basic analysis capabilities? Or, for a slightly larger investment, should you consider additional capabilities such as fluid flow, electrostatics or multibody dynamics, which allow performing more realistic multiphysics analysis? The latter could be more valuable.

Customer service: While examining FEA programs, call the developer’s customer service and test it with a question or two. Gauge their response. Will support be by phone, e-mail, fax, and online, or only some of those? Will your service requests go into a general queue to be addressed by different representatives each time, or by the same technical-support engineer who knows you and your needs?

Responsiveness: Better vendors are interested in their client’s experience with the software and hence, ask for feedback. Ask how that is done. Are new features added in response to customer requests? Are problems fixed quickly? Look for testimonials on the vendor’s Web site, a third-party site, or a user forum.

Training: Vendors should provide a variety of training options including classroom seminars, distance learning, and customized training. If the company offers seminars, are they nearby or out of town? How frequently are classes scheduled? Examine the vendor’s Web site and online resources. Which options would let users progress at their own pace?

Updates: Most vendors charge annual fees for software support and updates. Ask for that figure. Also, ask how many meaningful updates are released annually.