Can I Learn FEM By Myself? (A self-taught guide to FEM)

Finite Element Method (FEM) is a numerical technique commonly used by engineers to solve complicated engineering problems. It can be used to solve problems involving stress analysis, heat transfer, fluid flow, and many more.

A career in Finite Element Analysis (FEM) is a very rewarding and interesting career. I have been working as a FEM Analyst for nearly a decade now and I am still finding new challenges and better ways to do things every day. 

I studied FEM as part of my Master’s in Advanced Engineering Design, however prior to taking formal study in the subject, I was able to learn FEM to a good standard by myself. I did this through a combination of practice and self-learning.

It is possible to self-learn FEM. Through reading the right books and taking the right courses online, it is possible to gain an excellent understanding of the subject and apply what you have learned to practical engineering examples. 

The secret to self-learning FEM is to gain practical experience. It is important to apply your skills to real-world problems, to understand your software and to ensure you have a good grasp of the problem.

Simple stress experiments on everyday household objects, for example, measuring how much they bend under load and then simulating the problem, can be a great way to start your education in FEM. 

In this article, I will explain how it is possible to self-learn FEM and what I recommend as the best path to this, covering. 

  • Is it hard to learn FEM?
  • How do I start learning FEM?
  • What are the basic steps of FEM?
  • FEM / FEA learning steps for beginners.

Is It Hard To Learn FEM?

FEM can seem challenging at first. There is no doubt that the complex equations which drive the finite element method are not trivial. With lots of differential equations, it’s easy to feel confused as a beginner.

In my opinion, FEM is easy to learn if you start at the right place. Today, due to great advancements in FEM simulation software, it is possible to set up a simulation problem with no understanding of the complex math that drives the software.

When starting out, it is more important to have the willingness to learn and to get started on practice problems, so you can appreciate how FEM works and what it can achieve.

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From my experience, the best simulation (FEA / FEM) engineers are ones who really understand the engineering problem they want to solve. 

An appreciation of what loads to apply to your problem, the boundary conditions of the problem and a determination to verify your results and check for errors are more important to an analyst than simply understanding the math. The software can work out the math for you in the beginning.

Once you gain some basic experience in modelling simple FEM problems, you can then start to gain knowledge in the field and develop your skills by asking questions such as, “What is the right element type for this simulation?”, “Have I captured the geometry and intent of the simulation fully?”

By starting with very simple engineering problems, you can start to pick up the basics of FEM. 

As you advance in the field of FEM, once you grasp the basics, then it is appropriate to “look under the hood” so to speak, and start to learn about the complex mathematics that is at the heart of FEM.

How Do I Start Learning FEM?

The best way to start learning FEM is to get access to a simulation software programme, such as ANSYS or ABAQUS, and start working on basic tutorials as described in the manual. Some free FEM software options are available online.

It is best to start with simple practical examples. 

From working through simple examples, you will learn basic concepts such as:

  1. How to use the software
  2. How to apply loads
  3. How to apply boundary conditions
  4. The different element types
  5. How to read results
  6. How to verify results
  7. How to answer a specified engineering question

Working through simple examples will teach you all the basics. From this excellent starting point, you can then build on your knowledge by taking some online courses.

There are many free online courses in FEM, such as those provided by Coursera, which you can audit for free.

This will be sufficient to give you a foundation on the theory that supports and explains what is happening in the simple examples that you have tried so far. 

What Are The Basic Steps Of FEM?

Nearly all FEM problems will have certain steps in common.

Here is a summary of the basic steps of FEM. I have covered this in much greater detail in this article, FEA Example (A step-by-step guide for any FEA problem)

1. Pre-Processing

The first step in FEM is the pre-processing stage. This involves creating a 3D model of the object or structure that you want to analyze.

The 3D model is created using CAD software, for example, CATIA, SolidWorks, Siemens NX or AutoCAD.

2. Meshing

In FEM, the large 3D model is divided into a mesh of smaller elements. This is called meshing, and it is an essential part of the pre-processing stage.

Meshing is done to ensure that the equations can be solved for each element.

The mesh should be fine enough to capture the essential features of the object, but it should not be so fine that it requires excessive computational resources or time.

3. Boundary and Loading Conditions

The next step in FEM is to define the boundary conditions of the problem. These boundary conditions can include applied loads, constraints, and other known parameters for the object being simulated.

There are different types of load conditions, like point loads, distributed loads, and thermal loads.

The boundary conditions are used to specify how the object will behave when subjected to different loads and constraints.

4. Solving

After defining the boundary and loading conditions, the next step is to solve the equations for each element. This is done using FEM software such as ANSYS, Abaqus, or COMSOL for example.

Once the equations are solved, you can visualise the results of your simulation. The results can be displayed as colour maps, contour plots, or graphs.

5. Verification

The final step in FEM is to verify the results of the simulation. This can be done by comparing the FEM results with experimental data, analytical solutions, or other simulation results.

Verification is an essential step in FEM because it ensures that the results are reliable and that the simulation accurately represents the physical behaviour of the object being analysed.

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FEM / FEA Learning Steps For Beginners

It can be daunting when trying to self-teach FEM.

Here are some basic steps that you can follow to start learning FEM from scratch as a beginner.

  1. Get access to simulation software. This can be free or paid for.
  2. Check out the manual and complete any basic tutorials.
  3. Check out youtube and practice simple FEM problems.
  4. Check out Coursera for excellent and affordable FEM courses. This is to help understand the theory behind the simulations. It is also possible to gain a qualification in FEM through Coursera
  5. Check out UDEMY for some FEM courses to help learn the theory.

Between learning simulation software through practice and increasing your knowledge in the field of FEM through online courses it is possible to self-learn FEM.

In addition, I recommend this book, which has helped me greatly in my engineering career as it covers most of the basics of FEA: Building Better Products with Finite Element Analysis

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, the Finite Element Method is a powerful tool for solving engineering problems. It involves creating a 3D model of an object and then dividing it into smaller elements to be solved using specialised simulation software.

After defining boundary conditions and loading conditions, you can solve the equations for each element in order to visualise your results.

Finally, verification ensures that your simulation accurately represents the physical behaviour of the object being analysed.

With access to appropriate software and resources such as Coursera or UDEMY courses, self-learning FEM from scratch is possible even for beginners with no prior experience.

By understanding the basics of FEM, learning simulation software and utilising online resources, you can begin your journey into mastering Finite Element Analysis.

Learn Finite Element Analysis Get An Industry Qualification!

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