How to Perform a Sensitivity Analysis in COMSOL Multiphysics®

February 6, 2020

Simulation is used in almost every engineering field to predict the performance of a component in a virtual environment. However, that is not the only advantage of the technique. Understanding the main parameters affecting performance adds value to the design process. One way to understand this relationship is by performing a sensitivity analysis in the COMSOL Multiphysics® software. Here, we show how to use the Sensitivity study step using a truss tower subject to bending and torsion loads.

What Is Sensitivity Analysis?

If you have ever investigated the effect of changing a parameter in your model, you have essentially already performed a sensitivity analysis with respect to that parameter. Such a parameter can be, for example, a material property, a load, or a geometrical distance. There are two main situations when it is important to study sensitivities:

  1. You need to characterize how sensitive the response is with respect to uncertainties in the input data; for example, manufacturing tolerances or material properties
  2. You need to make changes to improve the performance of a design and want to find out which changes that are most efficient for attaining your goals

Obviously, the response will change more if the parameter perturbation is large, so it makes sense to divide the change in whatever you are measuring by the size of the parameter perturbation in order to get a normalized measure of the sensitivity. You can then compare this normalized number to similar numbers computed in the same way for other parameters, assuming that the parameters are somewhat equivalent and have the same unit.

This type of (more or less manual) analysis of the sensitivity is called a forward difference analysis and its cost scales with the number of parameters. It works best for cases where the number of parameters is small. It can, however, be a bit tricky to choose the size of the parameter perturbation, because it has to be large enough to avoid numerical noise and small enough to avoid nonlinear effects.

You could improve the accuracy by both increasing and decreasing the parameters to get what is called central difference, as illustrated below. This is twice as expensive from a computational point of view, because you have to evaluate the model for two new values of the parameter instead of just one.

Mathematically, the sensitivity can be seen as the derivative of some result with respect to one or more input parameters, and the two methods discussed so far are two well-known ways of approximating derivatives.

A plot showing a central difference scheme performed with an adjoint sensitivity analysis.
The slope of a curve can be computed using adjoint sensitivity analysis as well as a forward or central difference scheme.

Sensitivity analysis is, however, a built-in feature in COMSOL Multiphysics, so you do not need to perturb the parameters yourself. You can use the adjoint sensitivity analysis to avoid numerical parameters associated with the parameter perturbation and compute the sensitivity at the cost of a single linear solution. Conceptually, you can consider it as if you are computing a derivative using analytical methods, rather than approximating it by finite differences. This functionality is available for the stationary as well as frequency domain study types, and can be used as long as the parameters do not change the mesh.

In the example used in this blog post, we will use adjoint sensitivity analysis, because the problem considered has many parameters.

Bending and Torsion of a Truss Tower

Imagine a truss tower fixed at the bottom and subjected to a torsion and bending loads at the top, as illustrated on the left in the figure below. The model uses truss elements, which do not contain information about rotation. However, this information is required for computing the tilt and yaw.

The model uses thin beam elements (illustrated as a black cross at the top of the right-hand figure below) to measure the tilt and yaw.

Side-by-side images showing bending and torsion as well as tilt and yaw in a truss tower.
The bending and torsion load cases (left) and the definition of yaw and tilt deformation (right), which is computed using the displacements in the four top nodes.

The tilt and yaw for the torsion and bending load cases are listed in the table below:

Load Case Tilt Angle (deg) Yaw Angle (deg)
Bending 0.72 0
Torsion 0 1.2

Performing a Sensitivity Analysis in COMSOL Multiphysics®

We will investigate how sensitive the tower is to changes in the cross-sectional area of the individual bars. We do this by creating a control variable for every bar, which can be used to scale the cross-sectional areas of the bars. This can be achieved using an edge control variable field, Abar. The Sensitivity study step is included in the core functionality of COMSOL Multiphysics, but in order to add it, you have to enable it in the Show More Options dialog box.

A screenshot showing how to enable the Sensitivity study step in COMSOL Multiphysics.
The Sensitivity study step can be enabled from Show More Options.

The control variable will show up automatically in the Sensitivity study step, but you have to define the objective function using a probe or an integration coupling operator. In either case, you type in the objective function in the Sensitivity study step, as illustrated below.

A screenshot showing how to add the objective function in the Sensitivity study step settings.
The tilt objective is defined as a variable, so it can be written directly into the Objective Function table or added using the Add Expression button.

Results of the Sensitivity Analysis

The sensitivity with respect to the control variable can be plotted using the expression fsens(abar), as shown for the tilt sensitivity below. For the bending load case, this shows that the tilt will be decreased if the vertical bars are reinforced — particularly in the lower part of the tower. The torsion load case is plotted to the right, and we can see that the tower tilt is insensitive to changes in the bar areas.

A plot of the sensitivity analysis results for the bending and torsion load cases.
The tilt sensitivity is plotted for the bending load case (left) and the torsion load case (right).

The yaw sensitivity is plotted below. This shows that you can introduce yaw for the bending load case by reinforcing diagonal bars on one side, while weakening the diagonal bars on the opposite side. Doing this will break the symmetry such that the tower top will yaw in response to the bending load. For the torsion load case, the yaw can be decreased by reinforcing the diagonal bars.

Simulation results for the yaw sensitivity in the bending and torsion load cases.
The yaw sensitivity is plotted for the bending load case (left) and the torsion load case (right).

Neither the tilt nor the yaw is sensitive to changes in the horizontal bars, which suggests that it is possible to remove them and thereby reduce the cost of the structure. This will, however, cause the length of the vertical bars to double, so the structure will become more susceptible to local buckling.

Next Step

Try performing a sensitivity analysis yourself. Click the button below to go to the Application Gallery, which includes PDF documentation and a MPH-file for the Sensitivity Analysis of a Truss Tower model (you must have a COMSOL Access account and valid software license to download the file).


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