The finite element method (FEM) is a numerical method for finding approximate solutions to boundary value problems for partial differential equations.
It uses subdivision of a whole domain into simpler parts, called finite elements, and variational methods from the calculus of variations to solve the problem by minimizing an associated error function. A typical work out of the method involves (1) dividing the domain of the problem into a assembly of subdomains, with each subdomain represented by a set of element equations to the original problem, subsequently (2) systematically recombining all sets of element equations into a global system of equations for the final calculation. The global system of equations has known solution techniques, and can be calculated from the initial values of the original problem to obtain a numerical answer.
In step (1) above, the element equations are simple equations that locally approximate the original complex equations to be studied, where the original equations are often partial differential equations (PDE). To explain the approximation in this process, FEM is commonly introduced as a special case of Galerkin method. The process, in mathematical language, is to construct an integral of the inner product of the residual and the weight functions and set the integral to zero. In simple terms, it is a procedure that minimizes the error of approximation by fitting trial functions into the PDE. The residual is the error caused by the trial functions, and the weight functions are polynomial approximation functions that project the residual. The process eliminates all the spatial derivatives from the PDE, thus approximating the PDE locally with a set of algebraic equations for steady state problems, a set of ordinary differential equations for transient problems.
These equation sets are the element equations. They are linear if the underlying PDE is linear, and vice versa. Algebraic equation sets that arise in the steady state problems are solved using numerical linear algebra methods, while ordinary differential equation sets that arise in the transient problems are solved by numerical integration using standard techniques such as Euler's method or the Runge-Kutta method.
In step (2) above, a global system of equations is generated from the element equations through a transformation of coordinates from the subdomains' local nodes to the domain's global nodes. This spatial transformation includes appropriate orientation adjustments as applied in relation to the reference coordinate system. The process is often carried out by FEM software using coordinate data generated from the subdomains.
FEM is best understood from its practical application, known as finite element analysis (FEA). FEA as applied in engineering is a computational tool for performing engineering analysis. It includes the use of mesh generation techniques for dividing a complex problem into small elements, as well as the use of software program coded with FEM algorithm. In applying FEA, the complex problem is usually a physical system with the underlying physics such as the Euler-Bernoulli beam equation, the heat equation, or the Navier-Stokes equations expressed in either PDE or integral equations, while the divided small elements of the complex problem represent different areas in the physical system.