A Brief History of Finite Element Analysis – Part I

The first patent for computer software was filed in 1968 by Applied Data Research for a number sorting system. That same year, MSC Software, in partnership with NASA, released the first version of their now famous “NASA Structural Analysis” software (NASTRAN). 

A lot has changed since that time, 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 complex our material catalog has become. Novel materials such as chopped fiber composites with nano-particle matrices are becoming commonplace, yet these materials being modeled today are still using the same methods that we used when we were submitting the programs on punch-cards. 

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 (S&A) 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, had yet to be “released” by the big players in the industry. This was mainly due to concerns over IP protection. 

Industries such as pharmaceuticals and travel agencies, which existed long before computers came around, have just recently had their value creation lifecycles completely changed by access to data aggregation and cheap computation. S&A has yet to experience the same technological disruption that these industries now consider core competencies of their business. 

Pio-nerds (the pre-PC era)

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

1968 – A decade after the IBM701, the MacNeal-Schwendler Corporation 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 that NASTRAN was being developed, Dr. John Swanson was working at the Westinghouse Astronuclear Labs in Pittsburgh, PA. 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 a subsidiary of the Westinghouse Corporation, who used the software to analyze nuclear fuel rod assemblies. 

1978 – DYNA3D was developed by 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 of this growth. 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 today. 

Learn more in next week’s post: A Brief History of Finite Element Analysis – Part II