MultiMechanics Blog

A Brief History of Finite Element Analysis - Part I

Posted by MultiMechanics on Dec 8, 2014 12:09:00 PM


The first patent for computer software was filed in 1968 by Applied Data Research for a number sorting system. That same year, MSC in partnership with NASA released the first version of their now famous “NASA Structural Analysis” software (NASTRAN). It’s very humbling to think that alongside the inventions of commercial computing, were the sprouts of today’s $6 billion Simulation and Analysis industry.

Since that time, a lot has changed, but the fundamental way we think about structural simulation (as single scale finite element analysis) has stayed almost exactly the same. This is amazing and indeed a tribute to the method’s flexibility and robustness, but is also cause for concern when considering how amazingly complex our material catalog has become. Novel materials like chopped fiber composites with nano-particle matrices are becoming commonplace; yet these materials are modeled today using the same methods that we used when we were submitting the programs on punch-cards.

Although MultiMechanics was built long after the computer revolution, it is no-doubt interesting to trace the field of Simulation and Analysis back to it’s pre-PC roots.

The law-of-the-land (Moore’s)

Since the advent of High Performance Computing and the “race-to-the-bottom” mentality of cloud computing providers, computing power has become a relatively cheap commodity.  But this wasn’t always the case. 

Early on, the Simulation and Analysis industry was no different. As Moore’s Law went, so did the S&A companies. The latest code was always slightly behind the newest development in computational firepower. However, Moore’s most recent arsenal, Cloud Computing, has yet to be “released” by the big players in the industry. This is mainly due to concerns over IP protection.

Industries like Pharmaceutical’s and Travel agents, that existed long before computers came around, have just recently had their value creation lifecycles completely changed by easy access to data aggregation and cheap computation. S&A has yet to experience the same technological disruption that big pharma these industries now consider core competencies of their businesses. 

Pio-nerds (The pre-PC era):

1950s - Finite Element Analysis came into popular use in the 1950’s.  Around that same time, International Business Machines first mass-produced electronic stored-program computer. the IBM701.  As those punch-card computers progressed, so did the software to go with them.

1968 - A decade after the IBM701, the McNeal Swindler Company was working with NASA to complete the first computerized Structural Finite Element solver (NASTRAN).  A few years later they would sell the code as MSC/NASTRAN.

1970 - Around the same time Dr. John Swanson was working at the Westinghouse Astronuclear Labs in Pittsburgh. Swanson believed an integrated, general-purpose FEA code could be used to predict transient stresses and displacements of nuclear reactor systems.  Swanson developed his program using a keypunch and a time-shared mainframe at U.S. Steel. In 1970 he released this code commercially as ANSYS, and his first customer was his former employer Westinghouse.  

1971 - The Finite Element software package, MARC was developed by a group of researchers at Brown University. One of their early hires was the newly minted Ph.D, Dr. Dave Hibbitt.

These two vendors built slow and steady business for most of the 70’s, offering use on large time-shared machines like the CDC below. 



Going Nuclear (The PC Era) 

1977 - Mike Riddle and John Walker began independently working on what would become AutoCAD. Their initial version consisted of 12,000 lines of source code. This software, while not an FEA solver, would whet engineers' appetites for powerful GUI-based design tools. 

1978 - Dr. Hibbitt and two other employees of the MARC Analysis Research Corporation developed a new FE software, ABAQUS. Like, Ansys, their first customer was also subsidiary of the Westinghouse corporation, who used the software to analyze nuclear fuel rod assemblies. 

1978 - DYNA3D was the brain-child of John Hallquist, a young engineer at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The software was initially 5,000 lines of code, and was designed to predict the structural response of nuclear bombs dropped at low altitudes.


The 21st Century
As PC's and their hardware evolved, software companies  found unique ways to take advantage. While the roots of FEA software remained as they were in the 60's, the way in which computational power was utilized saw many changes during the 90's and through today.  



Topics: Finite Element Analysis, Multiscale