The finite element method (FEM) (sometimes referred to as finite element analysis) is a numerical technique for finding approximate solutions of partial differential equations (PDE) as well as of integral equations. The solution approach is based either on eliminating the differential equation completely (steady state problems), or rendering the PDE into an approximating system of ordinary differential equations, which are then numerically integrated using standard techniques such as Euler’s method, Runge-Kutta, etc.

In solving partial differential equations, the primary challenge is to create an equation that approximates the equation to be studied, but is numerically stable, meaning that errors in the input data and intermediate calculations do not accumulate and cause the resulting output to be meaningless. There are many ways of doing this, all with advantages and disadvantages. The Finite Element Method is a good choice for solving partial differential equations over complex domains (like cars and oil pipelines), when the domain changes (as during a solid state reaction with a moving boundary), when the desired precision varies over the entire domain, or when the solution lacks smoothness. For instance, in a frontal crash simulation it is possible to increase prediction accuracy in “important” areas like the front of the car and reduce it in its rear (thus reducing cost of the simulation); Another example would be the simulation of the weather pattern on Earth, where it is more important to have accurate predictions over land than over the wide-open sea.