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The Accuracy Of Digital Image-Based Finite Element Models

R. E. Guldberg, S. J. Hollister, G. T. Charras

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Digital image-based finite element meshing is an alternative approach to time-consuming conventional meshing techniques for generating realistic three-dimensional (3D) models of complex structures. Although not limited to biological applications, digital image-based modeling has been used to generate structure-specific (i.e., nongeneric) models of whole bones and trabecular bone microstructures. However, questions remain regarding the solution accuracy provided by the digital meshing approach, particularly at model or material boundaries. The purpose of this study was to compare the accuracy of digital and conventional smooth boundary models based on theoretical solutions for a two-dimensional (2D) compression plate and a 3D circular cantilever beam. For both the plate and beam analyses, the predicted solution at digital model boundaries was characterized by local oscillations, which produced potentially high errors within individual boundary elements. Significantly, however, the digital model boundary solution oscillated approximately about the theoretical solution. A marked improvement in solution accuracy was therefore achieved by considering average results within a region composed of several elements. Absolute errors for Von Mises stress averaged over the beam cross section, for example, converged to less than 4 percent, and the predicted free-end displacement of the cantilever beam was within 1 percent of the theoretical solution. Analyses at several beam orientations and mesh resolutions suggested a minimum discretization of three to four digital finite elements through the beam cross section to avoid high numerical stiffening errors under bending.