8-Node Structural Shell

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SHELL281 Element Description

SHELL281 is suitable for analyzing thin to moderately-thick shell structures. The element has eight nodes with six degrees of freedom at each node: translations in the x, y, and z axes, and rotations about the x, y, and z-axes. (When using the membrane option, the element has translational degrees of freedom only.)

SHELL281 is well-suited for linear, large rotation, and/or large strain nonlinear applications. Change in shell thickness is accounted for in nonlinear analyses. The element accounts for follower (load stiffness) effects of distributed pressures.

SHELL281 may be used for layered applications for modeling composite shells or sandwich construction. The accuracy in modeling composite shells is governed by the first-order shear-deformation theory (usually referred to as Mindlin-Reissner shell theory).

The element formulation is based on logarithmic strain and true stress measures. The element kinematics allow for finite membrane strains (stretching). However, the curvature changes within a time increment are assumed to be small.

See SHELL281 for more details about this element.

SHELL281 Input Data

The following figure shows the geometry, node locations, and the element coordinate system for this element. The element is defined by shell section information and by eight nodes (I, J, K, L, M, N, O and P).

Midside nodes may not be removed from this element. See Quadratic Elements (Midside Nodes) in the Mechanical APDL Modeling and Meshing Guide for more information about the use of midside nodes.

A triangular-shaped element may be formed by defining the same node number for nodes K, L and O.

Figure 281.1:   SHELL281 Geometry

SHELL281 Geometry

xo = Element x axis if element orientation (ESYS) is not specified.

x = Element x axis if element orientation is specified.

Single-Layer Definition

To define the thickness (and other information), use section definition, as follows:


A single-layer shell section definition provides flexible options. For example, you can specify the number of integration points used and the material orientation.

Multilayer Definition

The shell section commands allow for layered shell definition. Options are available for specifying the thickness, material, orientation, and number of integration points through the thickness of the layers.

You can designate the number of integration points (1, 3, 5, 7, or 9) located through the thickness of each layer when using section input. When only one, the point is always located midway between the top and bottom surfaces. If three or more points, two points are located on the top and bottom surfaces respectively and the remaining points are distributed at equal distances between the two points. The default number of integration points for each layer is three; however, when a single layer is defined and plasticity is present, the number of integration points is changed to a minimum of five during solution.

The following additional capabilities are available when defining shell layers:

Other Input

When KEYOPT(11) = 0, the default orientation for this element has the S1 (shell surface coordinate) axis aligned with the first parametric direction of the element at the four in-plane integration points:

Where element geometry {x} is given as follows:

(s,r) = two isoparametric element coordinates
hI (s,r) = shape functions associated with eight element nodes.
{x}i = global coordinates of eight element nodes

With KEYOPT(11) = 1, the default element coordinate x0 axis is directed from node I to node J. The z0 axis is normal to the shell surface, and the y0 axis is perpendicular to the x0 and z0 axes.

The default element orientation can be rotated by angle θ (in degrees) for the layer (SECDATA). For an element, you can specify a single value of orientation in the plane of the element. Layer-wise orientation is supported.

You can also define element orientation via the ESYS command. For more information, see Coordinate Systems.

The element supports degeneration into a triangular form. For better accuracy, however, ANSYS, Inc. recommends quadrilateral shaped elements. The triangle form is generally more robust when using the membrane option with large deflections.

To evaluate stresses and strains on exterior surfaces, use KEYOPT(1) = 2. When used as overlaid elements on the faces of 3-D elements, this option is similar to the surface stress option (described in the Mechanical APDL Theory Reference), but is more general and applicable to nonlinear analysis. The element used with this option does not provide any stiffness, mass, or load contributions. This option should only be used in single-layer shells. Irrespective of other settings, SHELL281 provides stress and strain output at the four in-plane integration points of the layer.

SHELL281 uses a penalty method to relate the independent rotational degrees of freedom about the normal (to the shell surface) with the in-plane components of displacements. The program chooses an appropriate penalty stiffness by default. A drill stiffness factor can be specified via the SECCONTROL command.

Element loads are described in Nodal Loading. Pressures may be input as surface loads on the element faces as shown by the circled numbers in Figure 281.1:  SHELL281 Geometry. Positive pressures act into the element. Because shell edge pressures are input on a per-unit-length basis, per-unit-area quantities must be multiplied by the shell thickness.

Temperatures may be input as element body loads at the corners of the outside faces of the element and at the corners of the interfaces between layers. The first corner temperature T1 defaults to TUNIF. If all other temperatures are unspecified, they default to T1. If KEYOPT(1) = 0 and if exactly NL+1 temperatures are input, one temperature is used for the four bottom corners of each layer, and the last temperature is used for the four top corner temperatures of the top layer. If KEYOPT(1) = 1 and if exactly NL temperatures are input, one temperature is used for the four corners of each layer. That is, T1 is used for T1, T2, T3, and T4; T2 (as input) is used for T5, T6, T7, and T8, etc. For any other input pattern, unspecified temperatures default to TUNIF.

SHELL281 includes the effects of transverse shear deformation. The transverse shear stiffness of the element is a 2x2 matrix as shown below:

To define transverse shear stiffness values, issue the SECCONTROL command.

Transverse shear-correction factors k are calculated once at the start of the analysis for each section. The material properties used to evaluate the transverse shear correction factors are at the current reference temperature during solution. User-field variables and frequency are all set to zero when evaluating the material properties used to calculate the transverse shear correction factors.

In the above matrix, shear-correction factor k = 5/6, G = shear modulus, and h = thickness of the shell.

SHELL281 can be associated with linear elastic, elastoplastic, creep, or hyperelastic material properties. Only isotropic, anisotropic, and orthotropic linear elastic properties can be input for elasticity. The von Mises isotropic hardening plasticity models can be invoked with BISO (bilinear isotropic hardening) and NLISO (nonlinear isotropic hardening) options. The kinematic hardening plasticity models can be invoked with BKIN (bilinear kinematic hardening) and CHABOCHE (nonlinear kinematic hardening). Invoking plasticity assumes that the elastic properties are isotropic (that is, if orthotropic elasticity is used with plasticity, the program assumes the isotropic elastic modulus = EX and Poisson's ratio = NUXY).

Hyperelastic material properties (2, 3, 5, or 9 parameter Mooney-Rivlin material model, Neo-Hookean model, polynomial form model, Arruda-Boyce model, and user-defined model) can be used with this element. Poisson's ratio is used to specify the compressibility of the material. If less than 0, Poisson's ratio is set to 0; if greater than or equal to 0.5, Poisson's ratio is set to 0.5 (fully incompressible).

Both isotropic and orthotropic thermal expansion coefficients can be input using MP,ALPX. When used with hyperelasticity, isotropic expansion is assumed.

Use the TREF command to specify the global value of reference temperature. If MP,REFT is defined for the material number of the element, it is used for the element instead of the value from the TREF command. But if MP,REFT is defined for the material number of the layer, it is used instead of either the global or element value.

When KEYOPT(5) = 0, SHELL281 uses an advanced shell formulation that accurately incorporates initial curvature effects. The calculation for effective shell-curvature change accounts for both shell-membrane and thickness strains. The new formulation generally offers improved accuracy in curved-shell structure simulations, especially when thickness strain is significant or the material anisotropy in the thickness direction cannot be ignored, or in thick shell structures with unbalanced laminate construction or shell offsets..

When KEYOPT(5) = 1, a simplified curved-shell formulation is adopted. Unlike the advanced curved-shell formulation (KEYOPT(5) = 0), the curvature effects in the shell-offset handling are ignored. The simplified formulation generally leads to more robust nonlinear convergence.

KEYOPT(8) = 2 stores midsurface results in the results file for single or multi-layer shell elements. If you use SHELL,MID, you will see these calculated values, rather than the average of the TOP and BOTTOM results. Use this option to access these correct midsurface results (membrane results) for those analyses where averaging TOP and BOTTOM results is inappropriate; examples include midsurface stresses and strains with nonlinear material behavior, and midsurface results after mode combinations that involve squaring operations such as in spectrum analyses.

KEYOPT(9) = 1 reads initial thickness data from a user subroutine.

KEYOPT(10) = 1 outputs normal stress component Sz, where z is shell normal direction. The element uses a plane-stress formulation that always leads to zero thickness normal stress. With KEYOPT(10) = 1, Sz is independently recovered during the element solution output from the applied pressure load. The pressure must be applied directly to the shell, and not via surface elements (SURFnnn).

The effects of pressure load stiffness are automatically included for this element. If an unsymmetric matrix is needed for pressure load stiffness effects, use NROPT,UNSYM.

A summary of the element input is given in "SHELL281 Input Summary". A general description of element input is given in Element Input.

SHELL281 Input Summary


I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P

Degrees of Freedom


UX, UY, UZ if KEYOPT(1) = 1

Material Properties
TB command: See Element Support for Material Models for this element.
Specify BETD, ALPD, and DMPR for the element (all layers) by issuing the MAT command to assign the material property set. REFT may be specified once for the element, or may be assigned on a per-layer basis. See the discussion in "SHELL281 Input Summary" for more information.
Surface Loads
Pressures -- 
face 1 (I-J-K-L) (bottom, in +N direction),
face 2 (I-J-K-L) (top, in -N direction),
face 3 (J-I), face 4 (K-J), face 5 (L-K), face 6 (I-L)
Equivalent source surface flag -- 

MXWF (input on the SF command)

Body Loads
Temperatures -- 

For KEYOPT(1) = 0 (Bending and membrane stiffness):

T1, T2, T3, T4 (at bottom of layer 1), T5, T6, T7, T8 (between layers 1-2); similarly for between next layers, ending with temperatures at top of layer NL(4*(NL+1) maximum). Hence, for one-layer elements, eight temperatures are used.

For KEYOPT(1) = 1 (Membrane stiffness only):

T1, T2, T3, T4 for layer 1, T5, T6, T7, T8 for layer 2, similarly for all layers (4*NL maximum). Hence, for one-layer elements, four temperatures are used.

Special Features
Birth and death
Coriolis effect
Element technology autoselect
Initial state
Large deflection
Large strain
Linear perturbation
Nonlinear stabilization
Section definition for layered shells and preintegrated general shell sections for input of homogeneous section stiffnesses

Element stiffness:

0 -- 

Bending and membrane stiffness (default)

1 -- 

Membrane stiffness only

2 -- 

Stress/strain evaluation only


Curved-shell formulation:

0 -- 

Advanced curved shell formation (default)

1 -- 

Simplified curved shell formation


Specify layer data storage:

0 -- 

For multi-layer elements, store data for bottom of bottom layer and top of top layer. For single-layer elements, store data for TOP and BOTTOM. (Default)

1 -- 

Store data for TOP and BOTTOM, for all layers (multi-layer elements). (The volume of data may be considerable.)

2 -- 

Store data for TOP, BOTTOM, and MID for all layers; applies to single- and multi-layer elements


User thickness option:

0 -- 

No user subroutine to provide initial thickness (default)

1 -- 

Read initial thickness data from user subroutine UTHICK

For more information, see Subroutine uthick (Getting User-Defined Initial Thickness) in the Mechanical APDL Programmer's Reference.


Thickness normal stress (Sz) output option:

0 -- 

Sz not modified (default, Sz = 0)

1 -- 

Recover and output Sz from applied pressure load


Default element x axis (x0) orientation:

0 -- 

First parametric direction at the four in-plane integration points (default)

1 -- 

Pointing from element node I to element Node J

SHELL281 Output Data

The solution output associated with the element is in two forms:

Several items are illustrated in Figure 281.2:  SHELL281 Stress Output.

KEYOPT(8) controls the amount of data output to the results file for processing with the LAYER command. Interlaminar shear stress is available as SYZ and SXZ evaluated at the layer interfaces. KEYOPT(8) must be set to either 1 or 2 to output these stresses in the POST1 postprocessor. A general description of solution output is given in Solution Output. See the Basic Analysis Guide for ways to review results.

The element stress resultants (N11, M11, Q13, etc.) are parallel to the element coordinate system, as are the membrane strains and curvatures of the element. Such generalized strains are available through the SMISC option at the element centroid only. The transverse shear forces Q13, Q23 are available only in resultant form: that is, use SMISC,7 (or 8). Likewise, the transverse shear strains, γ13 and γ23, are constant through the thickness and are only available as SMISC items (SMISC,15 and SMISC,16, respectively).

The program calculates moments (M11, M22, M12) with respect to the shell reference plane. By default, the program adopts the shell midplane as the reference plane. To offset the reference plane to any other specified location, issue the SECOFFSET command. When there is a nonzero offset (L) from the reference plane to the midplane, moments with respect to the midplane () can be recovered from stress resultants with respect to the reference plane as follows:

SHELL281 does not support extensive basic element printout. POST1 provides more comprehensive output processing tools; therefore, it is good practice to issue the OUTRES command to ensure that the required results are stored in the database.

Figure 281.2:   SHELL281 Stress Output

SHELL281 Stress Output
x0 = Element x axis if element orientation (ESYS) is not specified. (See KEYOPT(11).)
x = Element x axis if element orientation is specified.

The Element Output Definitions table uses the following notation:

A colon (:) in the Name column indicates that the item can be accessed by the Component Name method (ETABLE, ESOL). The O column indicates the availability of the items in the file Jobname.OUT. The R column indicates the availability of the items in the results file.

In either the O or R columns, “Y” indicates that the item is always available, a number refers to a table footnote that describes when the item is conditionally available, and “-” indicates that the item is not available.

Table 281.1:  SHELL281 Element Output Definitions

Name Definition O R
ELElement number and nameYY
NODESNodes - I, J, K, L-Y
MATMaterial number-Y
THICKAverage thickness-Y
XC, YC, ZCLocation where results are reported- 4
PRESPressures P1 at nodes I, J, K, L; P2 at I, J, K, L; P3 at J,I; P4 at K,J; P5 at L,K; P6 at I,L-Y
TEMPT1, T2, T3, T4 at bottom of layer 1, T5, T6, T7, T8 between layers 1-2, similarly for between next layers, ending with temperatures at top of layer NL(4*(NL+1) maximum)-Y
LOCTOP, MID, BOT, or integration point location- 1
S:X, Y, Z, XY, YZ, XZStresses 3 1
S:1, 2, 3Principal stresses- 1
S:INTStress intensity- 1
S:EQVEquivalent stress- 1
EPEL:X, Y, Z, XYElastic strains 3 1
EPEL:EQVEquivalent elastic strains [7]- 1
EPTH:X, Y, Z, XYThermal strains 3 1
EPTH:EQVEquivalent thermal strains [7]- 1
EPPL:X, Y, Z, XYAverage plastic strains 3 2
EPPL:EQVEquivalent plastic strains [7]- 2
EPCR:X, Y, Z, XYAverage creep strains 3 2
EPCR:EQVEquivalent creep strains [7]- 2
EPTO:X, Y, Z, XYTotal mechanical strains (EPEL + EPPL + EPCR) 3 -
EPTO:EQVTotal equivalent mechanical strains (EPEL + EPPL + EPCR)--
NL:SEPLPlastic yield stress- 2
NL:EPEQAccumulated equivalent plastic strain- 2
NL:CREQAccumulated equivalent creep strain- 2
NL:SRATPlastic yielding (1 = actively yielding, 0 = not yielding)- 2
NL:PLWKPlastic work/volume- 2
NL:HPRESHydrostatic pressure- 2
SEND:ELASTIC, PLASTIC, CREEP, ENTOStrain energy densities- 2
N11, N22, N12In-plane forces (per unit length)-Y
M11, M22, M12Out-of-plane moments (per unit length)- 8
Q13, Q23Transverse shear forces (per unit length)- 8
ε11, ε22, ε12 Membrane strains-Y
k11, k22, k12 Curvatures- 8
γ13, γ23 Transverse shear strains- 8
LOCI:X, Y, ZIntegration point locations- 5
SVAR:1, 2, ... , NState variables- 6
ILSXZ SXZ interlaminar shear stress -Y
ILSYZ SYZ interlaminar shear stress -Y
ILSUM Magnitude of the interlaminar shear stress vector -Y
ILANG Angle of interlaminar shear stress vector (measured from the element x axis toward the element y axis in degrees) -Y
Sm: 11, 22, 12Membrane stresses-Y
Sb: 11, 22, 12Bending stresses-Y
Sp: 11, 22, 12Peak stresses-Y
St: 13, 23Averaged transverse shear stresses-Y

  1. The following stress solution repeats for top, middle, and bottom surfaces.

  2. Nonlinear solution output for top, middle, and bottom surfaces, if the element has a nonlinear material, or if large-deflection effects are enabled (NLGEOM,ON) for SEND.

  3. Stresses, total strains, plastic strains, elastic strains, creep strains, and thermal strains in the element coordinate system are available for output (at all section points through thickness). If layers are in use, the results are in the layer coordinate system.

  4. Available only at centroid as a *GET item.

  5. Available only if OUTRES,LOCI is used.

  6. Available only if the UserMat subroutine and TB,STATE command are used.

  7. The equivalent strains use an effective Poisson's ratio: for elastic and thermal this value is set by the user (MP,PRXY); for plastic and creep this value is set at 0.5.

  8. Not available if the membrane element option is used (KEYOPT(1) = 1).

Table 281.2: SHELL281 Item and Sequence Numbers lists output available through ETABLE using the Sequence Number method. See Creating an Element Table and The Item and Sequence Number Table in this document for more information. The following notation is used in Table 281.2: SHELL281 Item and Sequence Numbers:


output quantity as defined in the Table 281.1: SHELL281 Element Output Definitions


predetermined Item label for ETABLE


sequence number for single-valued or constant element data


sequence number for data at nodes I, J, K, L

Table 281.2:  SHELL281 Item and Sequence Numbers

Output Quantity Name ETABLE and ESOL Command Input
Item E I J K L
ε11 SMISC9----
ε22 SMISC10----
ε12 SMISC11----
k11 SMISC12----
k22 SMISC13----
k12 SMISC14----
γ13 SMISC15----
γ23 SMISC16----
Sm: 11SMISC34----
Sm: 22SMISC35----
Sm: 12SMISC36----
Sb: 11SMISC37----
Sb: 22SMISC38----
Sb: 12SMISC39----
Sp: 11 (at shell bottom)SMISC40----
Sp: 22 (at shell bottom)SMISC41----
Sp: 12 (at shell bottom)SMISC42----
Sp: 11 (at shell top)SMISC43----
Sp: 22 (at shell top)SMISC44----
Sp: 12 (at shell top)SMISC45----
St: 13SMISC46----
St: 23SMISC47----
Output Quantity Name ETABLE and ESOL Command Input
Item Bottom of Layer i Top of Layer NL
ILSXZ SMISC 8 * (i - 1) + 518 * (NL - 1) + 52
ILSYZ SMISC 8 * (i - 1) + 53 8 * (NL - 1) + 54
ILSUM SMISC 8 * (i - 1) + 55 8 * (NL - 1) + 56
ILANG SMISC 8 * (i - 1) + 57 8 * (NL - 1) + 58

SHELL281 Assumptions and Restrictions

  • ANSYS, Inc. recommends against using this element in triangular form, except as a filler element. Avoid triangular form especially in areas with high stress gradients.

  • Zero-area elements are not allowed. (Zero-area elements occur most often whenever the elements are numbered improperly.)

  • Zero thickness elements or elements tapering down to a zero thickness at any corner are not allowed (but zero thickness layers are allowed).

  • If multiple load steps are used, the number of layers may not change between load steps.

  • When the element is associated with preintegrated shell sections (SECTYPE,,GENS), additional restrictions apply. For more information, see Considerations for Using Preintegrated Shell Sections in the Mechanical APDL Structural Analysis Guide.

  • No slippage is assumed between the element layers. Shear deflections are included in the element; however, normals to the center plane before deformation are assumed to remain straight after deformation.

  • Transverse shear stiffness of the shell section is estimated by an energy equivalence procedure (of the generalized section forces and strains vs. the material point stresses and strains). The accuracy of this calculation may be adversely affected if the ratio of material stiffnesses (Young's moduli) between adjacent layers is very high.

  • The calculation of interlaminar shear stresses is based on simplifying assumptions of unidirectional, uncoupled bending in each direction. If accurate edge interlaminar shear stresses are required, shell-to-solid submodeling should be used.

  • The section definition permits use of hyperelastic material models and elastoplastic material models in laminate definition. However, the accuracy of the solution is primarily governed by fundamental assumptions of shell theory. The applicability of shell theory in such cases is best understood by using a comparable solid model.

  • The layer orientation angle has no effect if the material of the layer is hyperelastic.

  • The through-thickness stress, SZ, is always zero.

  • This element works best with full Newton-Raphson solution scheme (NROPT,FULL,,ON).

  • Stress stiffening is always included in geometrically nonlinear analyses (NLGEOM,ON). Prestress effects can be activated via the PSTRES command.

  • In a nonlinear analysis, the solution process terminates if the thickness at any integration point that was defined with a nonzero thickness vanishes (within a small numerical tolerance).

  • If a shell section has only one layer and the number of section integration points is equal to one, or if KEYOPT(1) = 1, then the shell has no bending stiffness, a condition that can result in solver and convergence problems.

SHELL281 Product Restrictions

When used in the product(s) listed below, the stated product-specific restrictions apply to this element in addition to the general assumptions and restrictions given in the previous section.

ANSYS Mechanical Pro 

  • Birth and death is not available.

  • Initial state is not available.

  • Linear perturbation is not available.

  • Section definition for layered shells is not available.

ANSYS Mechanical Premium 

  • Birth and death is not available.

Release 18.2 - © ANSYS, Inc. All rights reserved.