Structural analysis is the determination of the effects of loads on physical structures and their components. Structures subject to this type of analysis include all that must withstand loads, such as buildings, bridges, vehicles, furniture, attire, soil strata, prostheses and biological tissue. Structural analysis employs the fields of applied mechanics, materials science and applied mathematics to compute a structure’s deformations, internal forces, stresses, support reactions, accelerations, and stability. The results of the analysis are used to verify a structure’s fitness for use, often precluding physical tests. Structural analysis is thus a key part of the engineering design of structures.
A structure refers to a body or system of connected parts used to support a load. Important examples related to Civil Engineering include buildings, bridges, and towers; and in other branches of engineering, ship and aircraft frames, tanks, pressure vessels, mechanical systems, and electrical supporting structures are important. To design a structure, an engineer must account for its safety, aesthetics, and serviceability, while considering economic and environmental constraints. Other branches of engineering work on a wide variety of non-building structures.
A structural system is the combination of structural elements and their materials. It is important for a structural engineer to be able to classify a structure by either its form or its function, by recognizing the various elements composing that structure. The structural elements guiding the systemic forces through the materials are not only such as a connecting rod, a truss, a beam, or a column, but also a cable, an arch, a cavity or channel, and even an angle, a surface structure, or a frame.
To perform an accurate analysis a structural engineer must determine such information as structural loads, geometry, support conditions, and materials properties. The results of such an analysis typically include support reactions, stresses and displacements. This information is then compared to criteria that indicate the conditions of failure. Advanced structural analysis may examine dynamic response, stability and non-linear behavior. There are three approaches to the analysis: the mechanics of materials approach (also known as strength of materials), the elasticity theory approach (which is actually a special case of the more general field of continuum mechanics), and the finite element approach. The first two make use of analytical formulations which apply mostly to simple linear elastic models, lead to closed-form solutions, and can often be solved by hand. The by and finite element approach is actually a numerical method for solving differential equations generated by theories of mechanics such as elasticity theory and strength of materials. However, the finite-element method depends heavily on the processing power of computers and is more applicable to structures of arbitrary size and complexity.
Regardless of approach, the formulation is based on the same three fundamental relations: equilibrium, constitutive, and compatibility. The solutions are approximate when any of these relations are only approximately satisfied, or only an approximation of reality.
Each method has noteworthy limitations. The method of mechanics of materials is limited to very simple structural elements under relatively simple loading conditions. The structural elements and loading conditions allowed, however, are sufficient to solve many useful engineering problems. The theory of elasticity allows the solution of structural elements of general geometry under general loading conditions, in principle. Analytical solution, however, is limited to relatively simple cases. The solution of elasticity problems also requires the solution of a system of partial differential equations, which is considerably more mathematically demanding than the solution of mechanics of materials problems, which require at most the solution of an ordinary differential equation. The finite element method is perhaps the most restrictive and most useful at the same time. This method itself relies upon other structural theories (such as the other two discussed here) for equations to solve. It does, however, make it generally possible to solve these equations, even with highly complex geometry and loading conditions, with the restriction that there is always some numerical error. Effective and reliable use of this method requires a solid understanding of its limitations.