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Thought Leader Thursday: Are CAE and FEA the Same?

In the engineering field, the terms Computer-Aided Engineering (CAE) and Finite Element Analysis (FEA) are often used interchangeably. Market reports on the CAE space generally profile the companies that provide FEA software to the industry. This can include computational fluid dynamics (CFD) and multi-body dynamics (MBD) software providers as well. In general, the CAE space is defined as software that discretizes geometry into smaller “chunks” and applies advanced mathematics to predict the performance of the larger part, component, or system.



In most industries, computers are routinely used for stress analysis that do not rely on FEA, CFD, or MBD. These stress tools rely on “hand-calcs” or analytical formulations that have been well established for predicting stress, deflection, buckling, stability, and vibration response. Engineering of airplanes, helicopters, bridges, buildings, and ships rely on these hand-calcs for evaluating the performance of the structure and only use FEA sparingly or not all. In the Aerospace industry, FEA is often used to generate the loads model, which is then used to feed loads into analytical stress tools to predict performance. Since these stress tools are often programmed into spreadsheets, or custom software routines, are they also CAE tools?


We all know that computers are very efficient at computation. Calculators made their entry into the consumer marketplace early in the computer evolution precisely because they made computational mathematics easy. So does CAE also include calculators or spreadsheets? I feel that one of the keys to success for the traditional CAE industry is to provide better connections between FEA/CFD/MBD tools and the “hand-calcs” often done in spreadsheets. Making this connection efficient and interactive will allow engineers to better use the computer to aid their engineering processes, and use the best tool or calculation for the job. And that’s where Altair comes in. Our vision is to make this connection robust and efficient between traditional CAE tools and the analytical tools in common use.


My contention is that computers can aid engineering, but in the end, engineering has to be based on sound physics, experience, judgement, expertise, and sometimes just a good “gut feel.” Computers provide tremendous value to the engineering profession in that they can perform complicated calculations quickly and efficiently. For example, optimization methods can only be applied with computers because of the number of computations required. But these calculations are only as good as the proper inputs, appropriate assumptions, the right mathematical formulations and algorithms, and experienced judgements on the results.

Some engineers have concerns that CAE tools, such as FEA, will eventually reduce the need for engineers. However, that is far from reality and talented engineers will always be needed. CAE tools, in whatever form, will provide more data for the engineer to do their job. Just like how calculators did not eliminate the need for accountants, bookkeepers, and mathematicians, the continued advancement of CAE tools will not eliminate the need for good engineers. We should continually look to computers to help us with what they do best – computation, and let engineers do what they do best – design products that help make life a little better.