All the vendors of finite element analysis (FEA) software would agree that choosing a particular FEA package is a major decision for an engineering department. Hibbitt, Karlsson & Sorensen Inc., now renamed Abaqus Inc., after its major brand, offers the typical reason: "FEA is at the heart of a manufacturing firm's MCAE activities." Pawtucket, R.I.-based Abaqus is right -- and wrong. And so are competitors such as Ansys Inc., Canonsburg, Pa. Both firms seem hesitant to leverage the new, growing significance of FEA solutions at some of their major customers. If both vendors would look beyond the horizon of their customer's engineering departments, they would discover that FEA software is at the root of competitive strategies of firms such as General Motors Corp. and Proctor & Gamble Co. The strategic role for FEA has grown beyond technical support for engineering departments to become a major competitive tool. Once a departmental problem solver and troubleshooter, FEA now has enterprise significance that gives users the ability to do engineering analysis in a fraction of the time formerly required. Best of all FEA is being integrated into the early product development phase. It is no longer exclusively relegated to analyzing parts or structures that fail in service. At GM Powertrain, Pontiac, Mich., FEA is part of a math-based mission for computer-aided engineering (CAE), says John L. Givens, director of Synthesis & Analysis. "The objective is to produce higher quality designs, reduce experimental material cost and reduce reliance on physical testing. Timesavings underlie all the other benefits. "What we're trying to do is institutionalize the methodology to make it part of the mainstream way we do work in engineering. We are aggressively moving to improve our interaction with design up front as well as with our test community throughout our product development process." (GM Powertrain is an Abaqus user.) The technology also adds strategic value to consumer products. At Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble Co., FEA helps in the design of such things as bottles, caps and even lipstick containers, says David B. Henning, manager of packaging and device CAE. "Automated with a customized interface, the Abaqus-based virtual packaging system results in significant productivity gains while improving repeatability and reliability of the analysis. The company is trying to reduce the time and cost of packaging prototyping activities. By designing virtually, it can also virtually screen for problems. "We're interested in factors that affect such things as strength, resilience, susceptibility to bulge and shelf stability," says Henning. "FEA eliminates the time penalty associated with first making physical prototypes and then evaluating them."