What Is Structural Analysis in Engineering? Things To Know

What Is Structural Analysis in Engineering Things To Know

Have you ever considered the stability, safety, and efficiency of the cars we drive, the airplanes we travel in, and the buildings where we live and work?

Structural analysis is a key discipline in engineering that addresses these concerns.

This article covers basic concepts of structural mechanics, methods of analysis, and their applications in various engineering fields.

We’ll focus on the computer simulation technique known as Finite Element Analysis (FEA) or Finite Element Method (FEM), exploring its use in civil engineering structures, automotive projects, and aerospace engineering.

While the interplay between disciplines is important, this article will not cover solid and fluid interactions, which is an advanced topic for another time.

Additionally, we will touch on the role of AI and machine learning in making structural analysis software more accessible to engineering design departments.

How Do We Define Structural Analysis?

Structural analysis is the study of structures like bridges, skyscrapers, cars, and airplanes to predict their behavior under various conditions.

These conditions include wind loads impacting a skyscraper, snow weight on a roof, or mechanical loads on a car component.

Such situations can result in phenomena ranging from oscillation and occupant discomfort to catastrophic failure due to fatigue.

From Mechanical Concepts to Machine Learning

Structural analysis involves evaluating forces, loads, stresses, and strains on an object or structure to ensure integrity and safety throughout its lifespan. Engineers use this analysis to identify weaknesses, assess the impact of external forces, and optimize structures for efficiency and durability.

This process, known as predictive analysis, is commonly applied in manufacturing and civil engineering. It relies on a solid understanding of physics, mathematically translated into partial differential equations. This numerical method integrates the geometrical description of the structure (such as with 3D CAD) to produce graphical outputs (3D color maps).

Numerical approximation techniques generate data that can be fed into machine learning (AI) systems. These systems can then reproduce the CAD-to-output relationship for variable inputs like different geometries or load conditions.

Key Concepts: Loads, Forces, Stress, and Strain

Key Concepts Loads, Forces, Stress, and Strain

Loads are external forces applied to a structure, while forces are the internal reactions to these loads. Stress is the force per unit area, and strain is the resulting deformation. For example, understanding the forces, stress, and strain in a beam under load is crucial for ensuring structural stability.

Equilibrium, Compatibility, and Material Behavior

Structural mechanics is grounded in the principles of equilibrium, compatibility, and material behavior. These principles are essential for designing resilient structures.


In structural mechanics, equilibrium is more than just balancing forces; it is about achieving harmony between the internal and external forces acting on a structure.

The principles of equilibrium dictate that the sum of forces and moments within a structure must be zero to ensure it remains static and does not experience unwanted deformations or movements.

Achieving equilibrium requires careful consideration of external loads, support reactions, and internal forces within structural elements.

Engineers apply equilibrium equations, derived from Newton’s laws, to ensure forces are balanced, contributing to the structure’s stability and resilience.


Compatibility in structural mechanics refers to the coordination of deformations within a structure to maintain stability and prevent failure. It ensures that the interconnected components of a structure respond harmoniously to external loads and internal forces.

This requires a detailed understanding of how deformations propagate through different structural elements, addressing issues such as material elongation, contraction, and rotation.

By ensuring compatibility, engineers make sure that a structure remains internally consistent, preventing unintended distortions and maintaining stability under various conditions.

Material Behavior

Understanding material behavior is essential in structural mechanics.

It goes beyond basic properties like elasticity and strength to explore how materials respond to different loading conditions.

Engineers must calculate how materials experience stress, strain, and deformation under various forces, temperature changes, and environmental factors.

The combination of equilibrium, compatibility, and material behavior is the foundation of structural mechanics.

This dynamic interplay allows structural engineers to design structures that endure and adapt to changing conditions.

It’s not just a rigid framework but a flexible approach that ensures resilience and stability in engineering design.

Methods of Structural Analysis

Methods of Structural Analysis

Analytical methods in structural analysis use equations to determine internal forces and deformations.

A key aspect is distinguishing between determinate and indeterminate structures, as well as understanding statics and dynamics.

Determinate and Indeterminate Structures

Structures are categorized as determinate or indeterminate based on the number of unknown forces and reactions that can be resolved using equilibrium equations.

  • Determinate structures have enough equations to solve for all unknowns.
  • Indeterminate structures have more unknowns than available equations, requiring additional compatibility equations or methods like the flexibility or stiffness matrix approach.

Statics of Structures

Statics deals with structures in a state of equilibrium, where they are at rest. It involves studying the forces, moments, and reactions acting on stationary structures. By applying equilibrium principles, static analysis enables engineers to calculate forces and displacements in different elements, ensuring stability under various loads.

Dynamics of Structures

Dynamics focuses on structures in motion, such as those subjected to dynamic loads like earthquakes, wind, or machinery vibrations. This involves studying the time-dependent behavior of structures using advanced techniques like modal analysis or time-history analysis.

Numerical Methods: Emphasis on Finite Element Analysis (FEA)

Numerical Methods Emphasis on Finite Element Analysis (FEA)

Numerical methods, particularly the Finite Element Method (FEM), are essential for complex structural analyses. FEM divides structures into smaller elements for detailed simulations, solving problems across various engineering fields.

Finite Element Method (FEM) in Detail

FEM is a numerical technique for analyzing structural behavior under different conditions. It operates on the principle of discretization, breaking down complex structures into smaller, manageable elements. These elements, often geometrically shaped like triangles or quadrilaterals in two dimensions or tetrahedra and hexahedra in three dimensions, collectively represent the entire structure.

Discretization Process

The first step in FEM is discretizing the structure into finite elements, similar to dividing a puzzle into smaller pieces. Each element serves as a unit within a mesh covering the entire structure. The choice of element type and size is crucial for the analysis’s accuracy and efficiency.

Once discretized, structural analysis software evaluates each element. Engineers apply mathematical models within these elements to simulate the physical behavior of materials under various conditions, considering material properties, external loads, and boundary conditions. Equations derived from equilibrium, compatibility, and material behavior principles are solved to determine the element’s response.

A key feature of FEM is its ability to capture interactions between neighboring elements, creating a cohesive representation of the structure. This interconnectedness is vital for accurately predicting how forces and deformations propagate throughout the structure.

Applications of Structural Analysis

Applications of Structural Analysis

Structural analysis finds applications in various industries. Here, we explore its use in civil and mechanical engineering, highlighting real-world examples.

Civil Engineering Applications

Large-Scale Projects: Dams

In constructing a dam, FEM models the complex interactions between the dam structure, the water it retains, and the surrounding soil. This simulation helps engineers assess the dam’s stability under different water levels, ensuring safety and reliability.

Tunnel Construction

In tunnel construction, FEM analyzes stress distribution along the tunnel walls, considering factors like soil pressure and the weight of overlying rock. This ensures the tunnel remains structurally sound and can withstand varying geological conditions.

Monitoring Structural Integrity

FEM is also used in monitoring structures over their lifespan. For instance, in bridge maintenance, FEM assesses the structure’s integrity over time, accounting for factors like corrosion, wear, and unexpected events. This proactive approach allows for timely maintenance and repairs, preventing major issues.

Mechanical Engineering Applications

Machinery Design

Structural analysis in machinery design examines the forces, loads, and stresses that components endure during operation. Engineers use this analysis to refine designs, eliminate weak points, reduce vibrations, and enhance load-bearing capacities, ensuring machinery longevity and efficiency.

Aerospace Structures

In aerospace engineering, structural analysis addresses challenges from gravitational forces, atmospheric pressures, and dynamic flight conditions. It ensures airworthiness by analyzing how materials withstand extreme temperatures, aerodynamic forces, and flight stresses, guaranteeing the safety and success of aerospace missions.

Automotive Components

In the automotive industry, structural analysis assesses the impact of collisions, vibrations, and varied road conditions on vehicle structures. This analysis extends to every component, from the suspension system to the frame, influencing the design of safety features, optimizing material selection, and ensuring vehicles perform well and protect occupants in accidents.