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Appropriate and Ethical Finite Element Analysis in Mechanical Engineering: Learning Best Practices Through Simulation

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2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


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Publication Date

June 22, 2020

Start Date

June 22, 2020

End Date

June 26, 2021

Conference Session

Mechanical Engineering Technical Session: Mechatronics & Simulation

Tagged Division

Mechanical Engineering

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Paper Authors


Benjamin B. Wheatley Bucknell University

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Benjamin Wheatley was awarded a B.Sc. degree in Engineering from Trinity College (Hartford, CT, USA) in 2011 and a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from Colorado State University (Fort Collins, CO, USA) in 2017. He is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Bucknell University (Lewisburg, PA, USA). His pedagogical areas of interest include active learning approaches, ethics, and best practices as they relate to computational modeling. He runs the Mechanics and Modeling of Orthopaedic Tissues Laboratory at Bucknell, where they use computational and experimental techniques to better understand the mechanics of musculoskeletal soft tissues and human movement.

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Finite element analysis (FEA) is a powerful computational tool employed in engineering industry, research, and in the classroom. While the finite element method was developed during the mid-twentieth century for civil and aeronautical applications, it has been adopted in mechanical engineering for the analysis of solids, fluids, and heat transfer, among others. Due to the incredible efficiency of the finite element method, improvement of computer aided graphical user interfaces, and the explosion of optimization and artificial intelligence tools, FEA has continued to grow in popularity.

However, the relative ease with which one can reasonably implement a finite element package without understanding the method itself presents a somewhat precarious circumstance. In some cases, users may not fully grasp the manner in which the solution presents an approximation of a real-world phenomenon. Furthermore, the robustness of FEA presents a circumstance in which users can design or modify their model to generate a preferred solution. The result of this disconnect between simulation results and user interpretation can lead to improper and even unethical modeling techniques.

This paper will discuss tools and best practices in teaching and learning FEA and interpreting results in the context of a junior-level mechanical engineering course. This course covers both the finite element method as well as use of a commercial finite element package. In addition to providing examples and activities from class coding the finite element method in MATLAB and using the commercial package Abaqus, this paper will highlight in-class FEA activity on deriving conclusions from finite element simulations. Topics include the assumption and accuracy of boundary conditions, mesh density and mesh convergence studies, material property selection, and interpretation of model outputs as they relate to model selection and failure criteria.

The primary objectives of this work are to 1) discuss the challenges of learning the numerical method versus application of FEA with commercial tools in a single semester and 2) highlight the importance of covering both topics by providing in-class and laboratory examples of developing and employing finite element analysis. Future work will be completed to assess the effectiveness of these activities in enabling proper modeling techniques by students. The long-term goals of these efforts are to improve practical and ethical simulation for engineering students and to further integrate these themes throughout the course.

Wheatley, B. B. (2020, June), Appropriate and Ethical Finite Element Analysis in Mechanical Engineering: Learning Best Practices Through Simulation Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--34161

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