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Advanced Virtual Prototyping - Interactive and Large Scale Finite Element Analysis

A commercialization project financially supported by UMIP Ltd


Virtual Prototyping is a term used to describe the use of computer simulation to design, test and validate products before making a real, physical prototype or the final product; thereby saving time and money. In industry, there is competitive pressure upon companies to reduce the time taken from initial concept to the delivery of the final product.

Finite Element Simulation is a key technique in Virtual Prototyping. Finite Element Analysis (FEA) is used to predict how a real "product" will react to environmental factors such as; stresses, temperatures and vibrations. Whereas competitive pressures demand much faster results from FEA software, a variety of factors has led to a trend of ever larger and more complex models.

The University of Manchester has developed techniques to drastically reduce the time taken for Finite Element Simulation. Novel algorithms and software architecture have been developed which, by reducing solution times by up to five orders of magnitude, enable both interactive FEA and the solving of finite element problems that are 2-3 orders of magnitude larger than those possible with existing techniques.

The Technology

Traditionally FEA is carried out as a three stage process that involves: (1) pre-processing, (2) equation solution and (3) post-processing. The new software architecture permits these three tasks to be carried out concurrently as a single process. By using a number of algorithmic techniques as well as parallel and distributed computing, the time to solution can be reduced by up to 4 or 5 orders of magnitude compared with a commercial off-the-shelf package.

This means that:

  1. Significantly larger models can be analysed than is currently possible.
  2. Real time, interactive FEA is now possible (enabling "what if" design).

In interactive FEA an engineer, through a visualisation interface, can manipulate and interact with a realistic engineering model, changing loading conditions, boundary conditions or material properties.

One of the the key differences between current FEA packages and the new technology is that the core library has been designed to be scalable from PCs to high performance computers. This allows a user to perform interactive FEA, or run very large analyses off-line, using whatever computing resources are available. Furthermore, the interactive FEA technology has been designed to be readily integrated into existing packages for VR (Virtual Reality) Visualisation and CAD (Computer Aided Design).

For illustrative purposes, the table below shows solution times for a steady state heat flow problem using increasing numbers of finite elements.

The second table illustrates scalability for one of the core solvers. The times are shown for the solution of a 1,000,000 element 3D elasticity problem.

Key Benefits

This breakthrough in FEA software capability directly addresses the Virtual Prototyping requirements of industry which commercially available FEA packages are not able to satisfy:

  1. Interactive finite element analysis.
  2. Large-scale finite element simulation.

The benefit of interactive FEA to the user is that as a design is modified, physical attributes can be calculated almost immediately, enabling a range of "what-if?" scenarios to be evaluated. In this way design turnaround times and costs are greatly reduced compared with traditional methods.

The ability to solve considerably larger models has different benefits for different users. Engineers can increase the accuracy of their analyses and materials scientists can gain insight into the behaviour of new materials by modelling directly at the micro-structural level.


The sectors which are the predominant users of FEA are Automotive, Aerospace, Nuclear, Civil, Biomechanics, Computer Gaming and Financial Services.

The Opportunity

The new FEA software is available under licence as an add-on module that can be integrated into engineering software packages (such as CAD and VR Visualisation) from other companies. An Application Programmer Interface (API) will be provided to licensees.

A demonstrator system has been developed in order to showcase the benefits of the technology, in some typical real life applications, to potential end-users and commercial partners. This system runs a distributed simulation environment, decoupling the computation from the visualisation. It is scalable from PCs to high performance computers and can display on a desktop computer or immersive virtual reality system.

Related consultancy and bespoke software services are also available in three broad areas.

  1. Research and development of state-of-the-art engineering analysis software.
  2. Specialised design, analysis and verification solutions to complex engineering problems.
  3. Resource brokering and contract management for access to large scale computational facilities.


Dr Lee Margetts