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Basic Finite Element Theory

1) Define a shape function
2) Know the three basic assumptions for finite elements
3) Describe the main element types available for structures

The next step in structural analysis is to be able to model more complex structures. The
ability to include the effects of shear walls, floor diaphragms, complex connections and
model shell structures is required. This is accomplished by using additional types of
elements in the modeling process. The Finite Element Method (FEM) allows more
complex element behavior to be modeled. The FEM was originally just an extension of
matrix structural analysis, developed by structural engineers. It has since been used in
just about every field where differential equations define the problem behavior. The
result of the FEM is to create a stiffness matrix and a set of loads. After that, the solution
process is identical to that covered in this text. There are many excellent books covering
the FEM, this section is intended only as an introduction.

The basic idea of the finite element method is to break up a continuum into a discrete
number of smaller "elements". These elements can be modeled mathematically by a
stiffness matrix and are connected by nodes that have degrees of freedom. This is
identical to what we have done with bending and truss elements. However, beams and
trusses have natural locations at which to define nodes. In addition, the derivation of
their stiffness matrices can be done on a physical basis.

Simple FEM Theory

More general finite elements require slightly more complicated procedures than used for
beams in order to derive the stiffness matrix. The basic procedure is to assume a shape
function that describes how the nodal displacements are distributed throughout the
element based. From the differential equation, we form an operator matrix that will
convert the displacements within the element into strains. Next the internal and external
virtual work can be formed and equated to develop the stiffness matrix. The last step is
identical to that used for truss and bending elements.

As an example, we will develop the stiffness matrix for a truss element, an axial member.
The truss element has two nodal displacements, v1 and v2, one at each end. For any given
set of displacements at the ends, a function is required to convert these into displacements
along the length of the element. The obvious selection for the functions is the linear set
given below.

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Notice how the given functions distribute the end displacements throughout the element.
These distribution functions are called the shape functions. The shape functions can be
put into matrix form along with the end displacements to form an equation that describes
the displacement within the element. This displacement anywhere within the element is
described by the following matrix equation:

x x  v1 
u ( x) = 1 −  
L L v2 

Notice that the displacement is a function of x, the position in the element. Also note that
the displacement anywhere in the element, u(x), is the sum of the displacements caused
by both end displacements distributed throughout the element. Equation 8.1 can be re-
written as:

u(x) = H(x) * v

The matrix H(X) is called the shape function matrix and v are the element nodal
displacements. We now need a differential equation that converts the displacement into
strain. For our one-dimensional example this is:

εx =
It is useful to re-write equation 8.3 into the form of two matrices. This alternate form
puts the differential operator into the form of an operator matrix, D. Equation 8.3 is re-
written to:

ε x = D * u(x)

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Where the operator matrix has the form;


If we apply this operator to the displacement, u(x) equation, we can find the strain as a
function of the element displacements, v, and the shape function matrix, H(X). This
gives the form for the strain in terms of the shape function matrix H(x).

ε x = D * H(x) * v

Note that the nodal displacements, v, are constants with respect to X and need not be
operated on, differentiated. Therefore, only the derivatives of the shape functions need to
be taken. For our case of the axial element, the strain can then be written by substituting
the shape functions, H(x), and applying the D operator giving:

1 1  v1 
ε(x) = −  
L L v 2 

Typically, the differential operator times the shape function matrix is called B, the strain-
displacement matrix. The strain is then commonly written in the shorter form:

ε x= B* v

We also need the relationship of Hook’s law that converts strain into stress.

σ = E *ε

Therefore, if we calculate the internal strain energy, as was done in previous chapters in
order to develop a stiffness matrix, virtual strain times stress, with substitutions we have:

δ Wi= ∫ ε
σ = ∫ (v T
* BT * E * B * v δV
volume volume

Equating internal to external virtual work and removing the arbitrary virtual
displacements, vT , we get:

S= ∫ (B
* E * B )δV * v

Looking at the equation we see that this is the familiar stiffness form of the element
relationship between forces and displacements. As a result, we can see that the integral is
just the element stiffness. Taking that portion out of the equation we have:

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Ke= ∫ (B
* E * B )δV

This is the classic form of the finite element stiffness formulation. For our axial element
example we substitute for B from before and E is just the familiar Young's Modulus. In
the general case, E is the constitutive matrix. For the linear case E is just the 3-D
representation of Hook’s Law. Integrating over the Y and Z coordinates for part of the
volume integral we get the area of the cross section. Multiplying the matrices after the
partial integration for the area and removing the constants from the integral we get:

 1 1
 2 - 2
 L L 
K e = AE * ∫   * dx
length  1 1
- 2 2
 L L 

Integrating the matrix term by term over the length we get the familiar form for truss
stiffness as:

AE  1 - 1
Ke = *
L - 1 1

This is the final result we are looking for. Of course this is identical to the standard truss
stiffness matrix developed by traditional stiffness methods. However the described shape
function process can be extended to other types of elements where traditional stiffness by
definition methods are not possible.

Available Elements
Energy derivations (here virtual work) are commonly used to form the stiffness for a
variety of element types. The most common elements are the membrane (planar), plate,
shell and solid elements. Each of these elements has a given set of nodes and
displacements associated with those nodes. The common forms of these elements are
given below.

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These elements have additional restrictions on their behavior that depend on their
derivation. However, the result is always a stiffness matrix that can then be treated like
any other stiffness matrix and may be rotated and transformed as desired. When
combining these elements, the same concerns about boundary conditions and matching
DOF at the nodes must be accounted for. Additional concerns are also generated since
the shape function assumption can affect the accuracy if the results. The standard beam
element can be derived in a similar fashion using the cubic beam functions given in the
section on Consistent Geometric Stiffness.

Element derivation has become increasingly complex. Techniques that include

nonlinearities while still reducing the number of unknowns in the element have become
very theoretically demanding. However the use of these sophisticated elements is
identical to their simpler counterparts.

The three elements most commonly used by structural engineers are the membrane,
plate/shell and solid elements. Each of these three will be discussed briefly here and then
in detail in subsequent chapters. The membrane element is a two dimensional flat
extensional element. The common versions are triangular and rectangular elements. The
triangular elements vary from three to six nodes. The rectangular elements vary from
four to nine nodes. There are two in plane displacement DOF's at each node of the
element. The elements can be used to model two dimensional elasticity problems, plane
strain and plane stress. It can reproduce the two normal and one shear stress in the plane
of the element.

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The membrane element has no rotational stiffness or stiffness normal to the plane of the
element. It can be situated arbitrarily in space but the resultant forces must lie in the
plane of the element. This is similar to the three-dimensional truss element. The three
node triangular element can model constant stress. The nine node rectangular element
can model linear variations of stress. Triangular elements are popular with automatic
mesh generation and adaptive mesh generation schemes. Loads on membrane elements
can only consist of in-plane loads.

The flat plate element is a two dimensional element that acts like a flat plate. It is found
in triangular and rectangular versions. There are two out of plane rotations and the
normal displacement as DOF. These elements model plate-bending behavior in two
dimensions. The element can model the two normal moments and the cross moment in
the plane of the element. Some versions will also give the transverse shear as a result.
The three node triangular version models constant moment. The higher node elements
can model linear variation of moment across the element. This element has no rotational
stiffness normal to the plane and no in plane stiffness. Superimposing the membrane and
plate elements on top of one another creates flat shell elements. Loading on plate
elements can consist of any combination of forces normal to the plate and out of plane
moments. Loading on shell elements can consist of the combination of plate and
membrane loadings.

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The solid element is a three dimensional extensional element. Versions found vary from
the four-node tetrahedron to the 27-node brick element. The most common version is the
eight-node brick element.

The solid element has three translations at each node for DOF. This element can model a
full three-dimensional stress state. The eight-node element has some linear variation of
stress throughout the element. The solid element has no rotational stiffness.
Tetrahedrons are popular for use in mesh generation and adaptive mesh refinement

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